Cross Game 2-3 by Mitsuru Adachi

The first volume of Cross Game (well, the first collected volume from VIZ, which includes the first three volumes of the Japanese version) introduced the characters and established the motivation for average boy Ko Kitamura to devote himself to becoming a good enough pitcher to reach the Koshien tournament. It’s very good, but there’s little actual baseball. Volumes two and three (four through seven in Japanese) make up for that in a big way.

Ko has now entered high school, but the publicity-hungry interim principal has hired Coach Daimon, who is known for getting teams to Koshien, and has built a dorm to house the students who’ve been especially recruited for the team. Neither seems to care about the boys or their enjoyment of the game—the interim principal is merely out for acclaim, and the Coach doesn’t put forth any effort to instill a team mentality in his players, seemingly content with a top sixteen placement because it’s good enough for him to keep his cushy job.

Anyway, Ko and his two close friends, Akaishi and Nakanishi, have refused to even try out for the varsity team and spend their time amongst “the portables,” which is the nickname for the leftover players who must practice under inferior conditions and with a coach who’s considered past his prime. Twice over the course of these volumes the portables challenge the varsity players, and both times the game is riveting in a way I have never experienced before with baseball.

Adachi’s great at pacing and setting the scene, and the flow of each game is easy to follow. The first match-up results in a close game, with the portables ultimately losing. A special training regimen ensues, and Ko works on building up his stamina and his arsenal of pitches. When the teams have their rematch, he’s a changed pitcher, and better than anyone the varsity team faced during their progress through the spring tournament. It’s true that we don’t get into Ko’s head much during all of this intense effort on his part, but I take this to mean that he’s got a singular focus—there’s no need to constantly reiterate that he’s attempting to fulfill the dream his childhood friend, Wakaba Tsukishima, had before her accidental death.

While the games occupy the most real estate in these volumes, there are some important character moments, too, mostly between Ko and Aoba, Wakaba’s younger sister, who always resented how much attention Wakaba gave him and who has never been able to shake the belief that he’s no good. I love that when Ko gets serious about pitching, it’s Aoba’s form and style that he emulates. Sure, Aoba is likely going to wind up in a love interest role, but that’s not her only purpose here, and it’s refreshing that the female lead is so thoroughly competent.

Words aren’t going to get anywhere with Aoba, so Ko can only prove by his actions that he’s dedicated and reliable, and we begin to see some very incremental signs of thawing. Small, episodic intervals chart the development of their relationship, and my very favorite moment in these two volumes—even with all the exciting sports action—falls into this category. It happens at the end of volume three. As a child, Ko used to accompany the Tsukishima siblings to visit their grandparents in the country, but he hasn’t gone in the five years since Wakaba’s death. Now he and his parents have been invited to come along and Aoba recognizes, from silent clues like Ko’s breakfast dishes and his solitary footprints heading out through the snow towards the woods, exactly where he is headed (to a spot he used to go with Wakaba) and prevents her youngest sister, Momiji, from going after him. She’s now ready to acknowledge how deeply he cared for her sister, which strikes me as a very mature moment.

Cross Game offers readers the best of both worlds. There’s intense baseball action for sports manga fans like me to avidly devour, but there’s also character drama, a strong female lead, and a sure artistic hand. Need I say again how ardently I hope we’ll see more Adachi manga in English in the future?

Review copies provided by the publisher.

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