by Mitsuru Adachi; adapted by Lillian Olsen
published by Viz; $19.99 / $14.99 US
Review by Ed Sizemore
It’s hard not to compare a sports manga to the sport that it portrays. However, I’ll spare you the tortured metaphor where I try to compare each component of Cross Game to a position on a baseball team and then discuss how they all work well together to create a championship roster.
Instead, I’ll just begin by saying that reading Cross Game is like watching a baseball game. It’s a leisurely paced series. Adachi isn’t in a hurry to tell his story. He’s an experienced author who knows people enjoy a tale that allows us some time to get to know the lead characters. So Adachi chooses a slow jog around the bases instead of a quick sprint to first base. It’s relaxing, reading a series where you’re not rushed from plot point to plot point.
So who are these people Adachi wants us to spend time with? In these first three omnibus volumes, we have 3 ½ lead characters, with two more who promise to become more prominent in the next story arc. When we first meet Ko, the main character, he is a kid with lots of raw talent but no ambition. The only reason he helps promote his family sports store is because he gets a commission from the gear he sells. Only his best friend, Wakaba, sees his potential, and she even tells her younger sister, Aoba, not to underestimate Ko. He can be great, if he wants to be. It’s Wakaba’s death that serves as a catalyst to make Ko get serious.
Aoba is the classic tomboy. She loves and excels at baseball. We’re told she is not just a phenomenal pitcher, but that she has perfect form. As a child, she was jealous of Ko’s relationship with Wakaba. Now, she is begrudgingly Ko’s friend and pitching teacher. Aoba was initially interested in Ko because she wanted to see if he could live up the potential Wakaba saw in him. She’s doesn’t realize that her interest is slowly turning into something deeper.
Osamu is a childhood friend of Ko and Wakaba. From early on, he has always loved Wakaba and baseball. If Wakaba had lived, he certainly would have been a rival to Ko for her affections. It’s easy to think him brutish because of his size and demeanor, but under that gruff exterior is a sharp mind. He’s a shrewd strategist. He’s got the brains and drive to push Ko into fulfilling Wakaba’s dream for him.
Wakaba is the half character I mentioned earlier. We can’t consider her a full character because she dies in the first volume. However, her memory haunts the other three characters. The last thing she shared with Osamu is a dream she had of watching him and Ko playing in the national high school baseball championship at Koshien. In many ways, she is the motivation behind so much that happens in Cross Game.
The two up and coming characters are Azuma and Nakanishi. Azuma is actually an antagonist when we first meet him. By the end of the third omnibus, he has moved in with Ko’s family and is slowly transitioning to being a friend. Nakanishi is introduced in the last two chapters of the third omnibus. So we don’t have any information on him yet, but his presence marks the beginning of the next story arc.
As you can see from the character descriptions above, there is a strong romantic undercurrent in Cross Game. This manga is character-driven, so it makes sense that their life off the playing field is as important as their life on it. Adachi does a good job of blending sports and love to keep the storytelling engaging. This also allows the series to have a wider appeal than a manga that focused exclusively on baseball.
Ah, but there’s still plenty of baseball. Adachi is obviously a huge fan of the sport. His love and knowledge of baseball comes through during the game scenes. Thankfully, only a basic understanding of the game is needed to follow the manga. I love how Johanna put it during our podcast: Adachi gives you a guided tour of each game. He’s not out to impress the reader with his mastery of the minutia of baseball. He wants to tell a good story, and that focus on storytelling keeps him from creating a sports-fans-only manga.
As Derik points out in the podcast, Adachi really narrows his focus to the drama between the pitcher and the batter. Admittedly, that’s where most of the action is happening in any game. The fielders are even waiting for the outcome of this struggle before they can be part of the drama. We get to see pitchers and batters trying to guess what the other is thinking. There’s a lot more going on than just “throw ball, swing stick.”
Adachi is also a gifted visual storyteller with marvelous page layouts. The baseball scenes are cut to be dynamic. The interstitial pages are beautiful and help change not just place but mood, too. Stealing a page (pun intended) from Tezuka, he does a delightful job of throwing in quick sight gag panels. I’m particularly fond of Aoba’s family cat and his rare appearances. His artwork rewards those who pay attention and linger on the page for an extra moment.
Adachi’s art style reminds a bit of Rumiko Takahashi. That’s not completely coincidental. Besides appearing in Shonen Sunday together, they are also good friends. Adachi has a similar ‘cuteness’ to his characters. There is also a cartoony aspect to the characters that makes it easy to imagine them being animated. So it’s not surprising that most of his manga have anime adaptations.
In the final score (sorry), Cross Game is an engaging series. The characters are likable people that most likely will remind you of people you already know. The focus of the series alternates between drama on and off the field to keep the story fresh. Adachi has been doing popular baseball manga for over 30 years now. He knows what his readers expect, and he doesn’t disappoint. Cross Game offers a way to sample sports manga by a master of the genre. It’s definitely worth a look, regardless if you like sports/baseball or not. (The publisher provided a review copy of volume 2.)