Cross Game Color Commentary

As part of this month’s Manga Moveable Feast on Mitsuru Adachi’s Cross Game, Kate Butler and I engaged in a bit of conversation about our love of sports manga in general and this series in particular. As we reference the plot and characters, this page from VIZ’s Shonen Sunday website might come in handy.

MICHELLE: I’m fighting the compulsion to start this thing off by going, “So. Cross Game, huh?” But perhaps I had better begin by introducing my fellow interlocutor, Kate Butler. Kate and I have been friends for about a decade now, and share a markedly similar taste in books, which extends to a love (somehow this word doesn’t seem quite strong enough) for sports manga. In fact, I am pretty sure that it was from Kate that I first heard about The Prince of Tennis and Hikaru no Go, both of which have been long-time favorites of mine.

What was your first exposure to sports manga, Kate?

KATE: The very first sports manga I read was the first couple of volumes of Harlem Beat. Was TOKYOPOP still calling itself Mixx back then? In any case, it was a long time ago, and I remember being surprised that this story about basketball, something which I find incredibly boring in real life, was holding my attention. But the real truth is that my love of sports manga comes about because of my strange attraction to shounen battle manga (and their insanely lengthy anime counterparts)—you really can’t describe The Prince of Tennis as anything else, even though they battle using tennis and not swords or super saiyan techniques.

But even though Cross Game shares a number of elements with that particular genre, I doubt anyone would peg it as a pure battle-sport manga.

MICHELLE: The closest I’ve come to a shounen battle manga that actually involves literal battles is probably Rurouni Kenshin, which I adore. I have yet to read any of the Dragonball series, but I suspect that I’d probably like it, too, since I enjoyed the pair of Toriyama one-shots I read.

You’ve touched upon one of the central mysteries of sports manga for me: how come I never want to watch live sports, but I gobble up the manga like candy? If forced to name a favorite sport, I would probably say basketball or tennis, which some might take as evidence for why I love Slam Dunk and The Prince of Tennis, but I can honestly say that I have never, at any point in my life, ever found baseball interesting. And yet I love Cross Game.

KATE: I wonder at my interest in sports-related manga as well. My adoration for The Prince of Tennis knows no bounds, and sometimes it even makes me think I must have been wrong—of course I must enjoy watching actual tennis! But then I try and am disappointed to discover once again that it’s as boring to me as it ever was.

Baseball is probably my most favorite of all the major league/professional sports popular in the U.S. But that’s not saying a whole lot—I always enjoyed my outings to Fenway Park with my dad, but much of my attention was focused on when I got to buy my next hot dog or ice cream.

I guess my next question would be, is Cross Game really about baseball? At least in the earliest volumes, while there’s plenty of baseball-related content, it’s not -about- baseball, at least not in the way The Prince of Tennis is about tennis.

MICHELLE: I think that’s an excellent question, and the key to its appeal. I’ve spoken on this theme several times in recent months, but I adore stories about lazy or disinterested characters who find something to be truly passionate about and/or a place where they belong. That’s why, of all the sports manga I’ve read, Cross Game reminds me the most of Slam Dunk. But even that is not really any comparison, since we learn much more about Ko and his motivations than we do about Sakuragi, and he certainly seems to be coming from a much deeper place than “get the girl” or “be the best.” The story becomes more about Ko and his personal journey rather than the actual specifics of his goal.

That isn’t to say, though, that the baseball games aren’t riveting and masterfully drawn, especially those between “the portables,” the lower-tier members of the baseball team, and the hand-picked varsity squad. Here again, I think Adachi’s stressing the importance of really loving something, no matter what it is, because simply doing that can bring one joy.

KATE: Yes, if I were going to try to identify Ko’s motivations, “be the best” and “get the girl” wouldn’t be among the first to spring to mind. Though it’s interesting that they wouldn’t, because we’re told early on in the manga that he’s actually far more competitive than he appears.

Your description of his journey from indifference to passion sounds a lot like Godai from Maison Ikkoku, though I personally am finding Ko much more difficult to get a handle on than Godai, whose faults and temptations and misunderstandings were all very much on display. Ko, on the other hand, feels slippery to me. Not to say he doesn’t have motivations and desires, but he’s very hard to read. It may have something to do with the way he’s drawn—I find his expression to be inscrutable most of the time, giving me little information about what’s passing in his mind.

Here are some examples of Ko’s expressions, captioned with the emotion he is experiencing at that moment:

Sly

About to Get Beat Up

Annoyed

Confused

Just Saw a Ghost

Puzzled

Shocked

Aaaand sly again

MICHELLE: That’s a good point, and especially true during the portions of the story where others are observing Ko and how much he’s grown. With the lack of facial cues, I pretty much just rely on his commitment to baseball as indication that he’s still doggedly on the path of making Wakaba’s dream come true.

Adachi’s art in general sends me mixed messages. In matters of pacing and paneling he excels, but his depiction of anatomy is more inconsistent. He seems to draw some bodies quite well. Ko’s when pitching, for example, and Aoba’s, especially on the chapter title pages on which she’s wearing revealing attire. I love how her body looks positively normal for a healthy, athletic teen, and don’t even mind that her clothes are a bit skimpy because they’re still practical and plausible. But then I look at her face, and it just seems incongruously cartoony compared to the rest of her. And then you’ve got the supporting characters like Nakanishi who—and I really appreciate that there are several awesome yet stocky characters in the cast—frequently looks too dumpy to even be able to run.

KATE: Well, maybe he can’t run very fast. Or more accurately, he’s not a distance runner. Baseball isn’t really a distance game, though: similar to American football, it’s mostly short bursts of high exertion followed by a bunch of standing around. Which is why your top soccer, basketball and marathoners tend to have a different body shape from football players and baseball sluggers. So I don’t particularly find the body shapes completely incongruous with high school baseball players.

The faces and the rest of the art—well, I’ll admit it, it took me quite a while before I was able to tell Aoba and Ko apart with any consistency. At first I found it annoying, but then I started to think it was probably on purpose that their character designs were so similar. They are meant to be two peas.

MICHELLE: I’m sure that’s intentional. She definitely looks different from Adachi’s other lead heroines, who tend to resemble the Wakaba type. And really, everything else—from the inscrutable hero, to the mild fanservice, to the dumpy bodies—is simply part of Adachi’s style. He’s remained quite consistent, as Joe McCulloch notes in his excellent post at the Panelists. It’s definitely an effective style for conveying this type of story.

KATE: Is that a Seishu uniform I see depicted on one of the panels from Nine? Interesting. I suppose given that so little of Adachi’s work has been translated into English, it’s not exactly unsurprising that I’m not intimately familiar with most of his series, but I do feel it’s a lack. The other series of his to which I’ve had the most exposure is Touch, and that just the anime. So while I can agree that the art is remarkably consistent, I can’t speak toward greater thematic consistency through his work.

On the other hand, Cross Game itself employs many plot elements to which I’m very partial. You said earlier that you enjoy stories where a less-than-inspired protagonist evolves into a passionate pursuer of something. I happen to adore stories where the arrogant and insufferable are brought up short by a plucky underdog. (That is, after all, one of the prime plot components of Pride and Prejudice, my favorite book of all time.) And in this first half of Cross Game we’ve already had a payoff on that particular plot thread.

MICHELLE: It is a Seishu uniform! I didn’t even notice that. And yes, I was only referring to artistic consistency because, sadly, like you, I haven’t enough experience with his long-form stories to know how the they compare. I’m hopeful that Cross Game will do well enough that VIZ will license more by Adachi. Alex Hoffman of Manga Widget recently speculated that Katsu! might be a contender, and I concur.

I’m with you regarding the payoff! Perhaps I should have expected that something like that would happen, but I still thought it was handled rather elegantly. In fact, one could probably predict several things about where the Cross Game story is going to go, but that doesn’t mean it won’t be enjoyable.

KATE: Well, after that random Seishu uniform, I must say my interest in seeing Nine has shot up about tenfold. I do hope Cross Game is selling well enough to spur more Adachi licenses.

The way the payoff of that particular plot was handled was excellent—but the buildup to it was also interesting, especially since neither of our protaganists was actually the original instigator of the portable team’s secret plan. I do love it when characters presented initially as thuggish turn out instead to be quite clever and nice. (At least to those who deserve it.)

MICHELLE: Me, too. And I think I’d read an entire manga about Okubo, the cheerful yet underestimated manager of the portables. I think that in it, she should solve crime. Also, I think I now ship her with Nakanishi.

KATE: I would so read Okubo: Girl Detective. Someone needs to write this manga!

Ahem. Getting back to the actual discussion again: Cross Game is very enjoyable thus far, we both agree. But there are few stories I find so perfect there’s not at least one or two things I might change. Is there anything in particular you haven’t liked so far?

MICHELLE: Hmm. Well, I’m not crazy about all the fourth-wall breaking that’s going on. I expected it more in volumes two and three, and so it bothered me less, but Adachi complaining about his schedule or depicting the characters reading his earlier series is just never going to amuse me. There was a bit in volume three that I laughed at, though, where someone threw something at a box of omniscient narration.

I also think Aoba’s dad is really creepy. For Ko, a teenage boy, to be curious about girls and to go into a daze while looking up the skirt of the girl ahead of him on the escalator doesn’t bother me, but for a grown man to hang around a batting cage so that he might catch a glimpse of a young woman’s underpants is, like, a criminal offense or something. And that his daughters know about and freely discuss his proclivities is also pretty gross.

How about you?

KATE: I’m completely with you on both points. It may be possible to break the fourth-wall in a way that blends almost seamlessly into the story, and there are a couple of instances even within Cross Game where it works out all right, but most of the time it just serves to jar you right out of the story.

And I don’t even know where to begin with Mr. Tsukishima. The existence of numerous other lecherous father figures (Shigure from Fruits Basket springs to mind, along with Nanjiro Echizen from The Prince of Tennis) suggests he’s part of some grand tradition I just do not understand. We may have to wait for someone to make this a topic of their dissertation before all the cultural dots are connected.

MICHELLE: Maybe so. I mean, it must be funny to someone, right? Probably Japan is just more relaxed about that sort of thing than Americans—it is the land of used-undies vending machines, after all—but I’d think actually ogling a customer would cross some sort of line even there.

Now that I think about, there are loads of fellows in Cross Game who are unabashed about their girlie mags. Azuma’s brother, Junpei, has a pile in his delivery van when we first meet him. Ko’s got his own stash. His dad left one lying about at one point, too.

KATE: I can’t claim to be an expert, but anecdotally, that kind of soft-core porn seems much more out in the open. Salarymen reading it on trains, etc. So is it really meant to be funny? I guess the idea that it’s a joke is less depressing than the idea that it’s meant to be serious and no one cares.

MICHELLE: I don’t think the act of reading the magazines is really supposed to be funny, just a casual thing, but I bet that Mr. Tsukishima’s antics were intended to be. For the most part, I bet Adachi uses those magazines to show that these are just regular guys and, though they may be talented, or be able to summon great dedication for something that they love, in the end they all still get goofy for teh boobies.

KATE: That’s probably true. And in that sense, the T and A quotient of this series is really not any more than you’d find on your average American sitcom. Or maybe even in Archie comics, considering how that’s been going lately.

I think as long as these things remain in the background as the series progresses they’ll continue to be ignorable offenses for the most part. My larger concern going forward is, of course, the bane of authors everywhere: the conclusion. So many authors are so incredibly talented at the beginning parts of a story. Quite a few authors can sustain a story admirably through the middle portion. But then the endings! Oh, the weak, underwritten, cop-out finales. I’m both eager and afraid to see which side Cross Game falls out on.

MICHELLE: Oh, indeed. Like I mentioned before, certain aspects of the tale can be predicted, and that’s simply because of the kind of story it is. I mean, I suppose Adachi might never allow the Seishu team to make it to Koshien, but I’d consider it highly unlikely for a sports manga to go that route. I must admit, though, that I have heard that some of his endings are rather open-ended.

KATE: I think the baseball-related developments are probably set in stone—it would be unthinkable not to see them get to Koshien eventually, though whether or not he’ll take us through the entire tournament is less determined. But the character side of the equation is where the possibility of letdown really exists. So far things there have been developing at a nice pace, so hopefully the ending won’t disappoint.

MICHELLE: I guess we will just have to wait and see!

Thanks for joining me to talk about Cross Game!

KATE: Thanks! This was a lot of fun!

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.

Cross Game 1 by Mitsuru Adachi: A-

When the first volume of Cross Game arrived at my house, I’m pretty sure my exact words were, “Eee!” Happily, I liked it every bit as I thought I would.

You can find my review for Comics Should Be Good here.

Cross Game is published in English by VIZ, who is bundling the seventeen-volume series into eight chunky tomes. This one is comprised of the first three volumes and the others will contain two each.

Review copy provided by the publisher.

Touch 2 (Japanese) by Mitsuru Adachi: B+

Book description:
Junior High life continues for the Uesugi twins and their childhood friend, Minami Asakura. Minami volunteers Tatsuya to run the final leg of the mixed relay for their class in the inter-school athletic meet, Tatsuya gets (falsely) accused of reading Minami’s diary, Kazuya begins dating a cute girl named Kaori and ends up seeing a movie with her that he’d promised to see with Minami, there’s only one call for twinly substitution, and both boys are convinced that Minami likes the other one better.

Review:
I liked this volume better than the first. There is only one scene where Tatsuya stands in for Kazuya, and he isn’t really pretending to be him, either. Also, each chapter seems to flow better from the last—a few spent on the athletic meet, a few on how Tatsuya owes his friend $255 for breaking his swanky binoculars, etc. Tatsuya is far less bumbling this time around, as well, and I can already see my wish of further development for him beginning to be fulfilled.

Of course, the most important thing is how each of the characters feels about the others. One of their classmates, Kaori, has a crush on Kazuya, and talks to Tatsuya about him. He does his best to convince her that Kazuya and Minami have something going on, thinking to spare her heartbreak by encouraging her to get over Kazuya quickly. (Lest one think his motives are pure, he also wouldn’t mind if she were to transfer her affections to him.)

Minami foils his plans by telling Kaori that she and Kazuya are just childhood friends. Kazuya hears about this, figures he has no chance with Minami, and begins dating Kaori. So, each twin is convinced that Minami loves his brother. This could’ve been handled with high angst, but instead it’s pretty low-key, with the brothers’ emotions obvious but not melodramatic. Minami’s romantic feelings are a mystery at present, though sometimes her behavior makes me wonder what the boys see in her.

I really enjoy Adachi’s art and pacing, and it’s a testament to his storytelling skills that when the volume left off on a mild cliffhanger concerning Tatsuya playing in a baseball game due to Kazuya’s unavailability (because he’s supposed to go see that movie with Minami), I was actually tempted to start the next volume right away. All of the little details of the story come together nicely, and character motivations and emotions are always clear. I’m definitely beginning to really enjoy this series now.

Touch 1 (Japanese) by Mitsuru Adachi: B+

Book description:
The Uesugi and Asakura families have been neighbors for years and their children have grown up together. The kids are now in their third year at Meisei Junior High. The Uesugi brothers, twins Kazuya and Tatsuya, could not be more different. Kazuya is a serious and clear-headed baseball star who scores first in his class on exams while Tatsuya is a slacker who can never measure up to his younger brother. Their neighbor, Minami Asakura, is also a good student, and gets on well with the studious twin but is perpetually annoyed by the other.

Everyone assumes that Minami and Kazuya will end up marrying, but he may not be the only twin with feelings for his pretty childhood friend.

Review:
I really love the first chapter of Touch and the way it introduces the three main characters, but things go a bit downhill from there.

It’s still a very pleasant slice-of-life story, purely episodic at first but with more connected chapters later on, but some aspects of it are already wearing thin. In just this first volume, the twins impersonate each other several times and most chapters involve Tatsuya messing up or performing ineptly in some way. I get that the idea is to show him in contrast with his talented brother, but the point gets made many times over.

Adachi’s art is clean and cute. There’s an uncluttered, almost airy, feel to the panels that I like a lot. Facial expressions are mostly simplistic, but that just contributes to an overall mellow feeling.

This was a good start to the series, but I am already ready to see some growth from Tatsuya. Thankfully, it does seem like he might have potential to make something of himself, and I’m hopeful that the story will continue to move in that direction.

Short Program 2 by Mitsuru Adachi: B+

From the back cover:
Love and life are programmed in
* Is the life of a cute, young private detective on the line?
* Can love be found only half-way down the line?
* Will life change in a coffee shop?
* How can an earthquake shake up a relationship?
* Is destiny all it’s cracked up to be for a baseball loser?
* Will a playwright balance loyalty against love?
* Was it really that great in the good ole’ days?
* Can a manga artist watch baseball and meet deadlines?

Review:
Eee! I got to read this without spending $60+ on it! Thank you WorldCat!

I didn’t enjoy this collection quite as much as the first. I think the primary reasons were that many of the stories were really short and also that many of them featured baseball. I know Adachi is a big fan, but it kind of got to the point where I’d groan inwardly if the title page for the next story featured a kid in a baseball cap.

My two favorite stories had nothing to do with baseball. The first, “Spring Passes,” tells the story of a guy who had been persuaded to give a friend a lift on his motorcycle and then had a wreck. There was more to it than that, and though it was kind of predictable, I still liked its melancholy feel.

The other I particularly liked was called “The Road Home” and was told in two parts, each featuring a little boy that found himself whisked to another time, one forward and one back. I especially liked that the first half had no real resolution, and I think that’s kind of what I liked most about “Spring Passes,” too. The romantic comedy ones were cute with their nice endings, but the ones that really stood out did not take such well-trod paths.

Ultimately, I would like to own a copy of this for myself, but now that I’ve read it I will be able to hold out for the reasonable price that surely will present itself one of these days.

Short Program by Mitsuru Adachi: A-

From the back cover:
The comic-book short story is one of the most difficult areas of storytelling, but Adachi handles the challenge with deceptive ease. His low-key approach belies the power of the emotions his characters portray. The resolution of Adachi’s stories are logical, dramatic, true-to-life, and completely unpredictable.

Span the range of human relationships in eight acts!
* Who’s the little guy who’s always getting into scraps?
* Is there a reason the track star is setting the bar higher?
* Is the nice guy across the way as nice as he seems?
* Will the detective track down his dream girl?
* She passes him every day on the street. Can he meet her?
* It’s the school reunion—are the old flames dead?
* How does the repairman compare to the heartthrob?
* Is the solution to gang rivalries worse than the problem?

Review:
This was my first time reading any Mitsuru Adachi, and I enjoyed the experience. I liked every story in the collection, though some more than others. Most had to do with romance in some fashion, some in a straightforward way where a couple got together at the end, and others in ways that subverted the reader’s expectations. I tended to prefer the latter variety.

My favorite story was one that seemed like it was involving romance—a boy and girl were out on a date at an amusement park and were having a conversation while on various rides. Their apartments faced each other across the street, and she thanked him for a few occasions where he was able to help her due to looking out of his window at just the right time. It totally did not end how I expected it to, and was quite awesome.

Another favorite was a story about a track star who kept setting her high jump goal higher to correspond with the height of the guy she liked. Instead of the story being told from her perspective, it featured said guy and his friend sitting in an apartment watching her in a televised event and figuring out how she felt about him.

About the only thing I didn’t like was the tendency of the stories to break the fourth wall. Adachi appeared in a couple of stories to make random comments, his name was mentioned by a character once, and a couple of other characters referenced the fact that they were in a manga. I really don’t find that kind of thing cute or funny.

Through the majesty of interlibrary loans, I have managed to acquire a copy of the elusive Short Program 2, which I’ll be reviewing in the next couple of days. Though a third compilation was released in Japan, it has, alas, never been licensed for North American distribution.