MMF: Ten things I love about Cross Game

I’ve already spilled so much cyber ink on Mitsuru Adachi’s Cross Game (Viz), and I’m sure I’ll continue to do so. Quite simply, it’s one of the finest shônen series I’ve ever read. Heck, it’s of the best comics of any category that I’ve read. Here are ten reasons why I feel that way:

It’s less about baseball than the people who play it. One of the first questions that always arise when a sports manga is published in English is whether or not a reader needs to be interested in the sport in question to appreciate the manga. In the case of Cross Game, fondness for the sport isn’t necessary, and I say that from a place of profound disinterest in our putative national sport. Here’s the thing, as I see it: a creator or creators can tell an interesting story about any subject, no matter how removed from my personal interests, if they approach the material with intelligence and restraint and populate the telling with compelling, complex characters. The cast of Cross Game is undeniably dedicated to baseball, but they’re also invested in their interpersonal relationships with friends and family. Protagonist Ko Kitamura wants to succeed in the sport, but his reasons are specific and deeply personal. Aoba Tsukishima wants to excel in baseball as well, but her efforts are nicely tinged with ambivalence over the limitations a girl faces in that endeavor. They don’t live in a baseball-centric vacuum where nothing else matters. It’s not about baseball; it’s about the ways baseball intersects with characters’ deeper lives.

The pacing is often surprising. One of the first things that struck me about Adachi is the fact that he seems very unconcerned with the kind of traditional, beat-by-beat storytelling that you sometimes find in shônen manga. He can certainly spend chapters examining the progress of a single baseball game, but that progress is layered with so much more than stats and stunts. A good half of the second collection features Ko’s team of second-stringers challenging the coach’s chosen squad. It’s got the kind of narrative weight you’d expect, what with the underdogs stepping up and trying to prove their worth, but there are plenty of unexpected undercurrents. Adachi uses the game to explore the sometimes unsavory politics of team sports. He also uses a perfectly delightful and unexpected narrative device, as Aoba and a mysterious old man watch the game together, immediately establish a rapport, and evaluate the progress with a full and understated grasp of the other’s emotional and personal subtext. The game is fine, but the framing is better, and Adachi entirely skims over what other artists might consider pivotal moments to be documented from every angle and articulated in exhaustive, exhausting detail.

Adachi trusts the intelligence of his readers. Part of the peril of sports manga is that aforementioned exhausting detail, so it’s refreshing to see that Adachi doesn’t fall into that trap. He’s figured out the exact formula for how much exposition his readers will need to understand what’s going on, which means he doesn’t need to resort to the trick of pervasive narration drowning the actual action. He can show instead of tell, which is a disappointingly rare ability in a field that should rely so heavily on showing. Part of it might be confidence, but I think a more significant element is trust in the fact that readers care enough about the characters to remember their motivations and intuit how they drive their behaviors. Clear and persuasive motivations obviate the need for middle-distance monologues about what’s about to or has just happened.

The digressions are as appealing as the primary narrative. Cross Game is one of those titles that fully cohere in spite of seemingly disparate elements. Adachi can wander away from the baseball to pursue side stories and character moments that support the narrative as a whole. Quirky day-in-the-life chapters are charming in their own right and provide a change of pace, but they also give readers a wider view of the characters, which makes them even more likable.

The dialogue is understated. I’d never argue that this is an immovable requirement of good storytelling. I would even concede that the aforementioned middle-distance monologues can make some manga better. Look at the searing, hyper-expressed inner passions of the characters in Kyoko Ariyoshi’s Swan (CMX). All the same, it’s a pleasure to see a more oblique approach. As with Natsuki Takaya’s Fruits Basket (Tokyopop), characters in Cross Game are much more likely to allude to past events than to fully restate them. It’s more in line with the way people actually speak, in fragments and phrases that the people who know them will understand, and those people include readers.

It can be very funny. The humor in Cross Game, like everything else, derives largely from who the characters are. The most aggressively comic character, Senda, is actually funny, which isn’t always a given. This egotistical dork is the type who really can’t accurately assess his own strengths and weaknesses, and Adachi takes at least a little delight in humiliating him. Senda isn’t mocked without at least a degree of fondness, though. Aoba is funny in a subtler way; her set-jaw certainty and pragmatism are amusing in contrast to some of the space cases around her, and Adachi lets her be wrong without scolding her.

It can be very sad. Of course, the thing Aoba is wrong about most often is Ko, but she can hardly be blamed. Early in the series, they share a very specific, very real loss, and it informs their young adulthood in ways that are both mournful and somewhat uplifting. Aoba and Ko have the same pole star, relying on their memories of this person to influence their actions in what they think are positive ways. Of course, those memories also form obstacles between Aoba and Ko, in spite and because of the things they have in common. It isn’t unusual for a shônen tale to have a driving, underlying tragedy, but it’s rare for it to be as grounded and effectively applied as it is here. The notes of sorrow pop up at unexpected but entirely credible moments, and they make the palette of the piece richer.

Adachi brings the mono no aware. It’s that juxtaposition of sorry and comedy blended with wistfulness and self-awareness that categorizes the concept of mono no aware, or “the pity of things,” for me. The characters here are very much invested in the moment, but they’re also cognizant of how fleeting that moment can be. Past, present and future all intersect to influence the characters’ feelings, making them feel truer and more pungent. If there’s a quality that makes me really invest in a story, particularly in a comic from Japan, it’s mono no aware.

It looks great. Adachi’s art has all of the individual elements that combine to form an attractive book – appealing character design, a facility for rendering people and objects in motion, sly comedic styling, and so on. What strikes me most are the page compositions, which often use a series of small, rigid panels to create a more sinuous whole. That style can be applied to the wide spectrum of tones Adachi routinely incorporates into his story. It’s more than good panel-by-panel drawing; it’s effective staging of those panels into something larger.

There’s an adorable cat. Okay, the cat isn’t central to the narrative, and its appearances are more like Easter eggs – little flashes of cuteness that occasionally pop up. But Adachi draws the cat very well, and he’s restrained in his use of the furry little critter. It adds a nice little touch to the Tsukishima household, making it feel slightly more real than it already does. And, let’s face it, the presence of an adorable cat always makes manga better. See also: Shampoo in Kiyoko Arai’s Beauty Pop (Viz).

So there are the ten reasons I love Cross Game. They’re also the reasons I’m so eager to read more of Adachi’s work. I look forward to seeing other people’s reaction to the series as the current Manga Moveable Feast (hosted by The Panelists) progresses.

 

Comments

  1. I read volume one and stopped after that if you cant make me care about the *Spoiler* Wakaba dieing or actually make her a fully devloped charcter (IMO) or ellicit any emotion from me over her death than why am I reading this? That being said this might be sereis I pick back up latter heaven knwos their have been sereis I didn’t like the first time I read tham and ended up likeing them a lot more the second time.

  2. I love that you included the page with the father fishing his son’s hat out of the water. It’s a nice moment, and probably made Ko think about what had happened to the.. pole star. :)

  3. Adachi LOVE!!

    And – with all due respect – this is one mangaka that I NEVER would have picked up or watched an anime by, had I now been introduced to him via scanlation and fansub. I do NOT enjoy sports manga or even most shonen manga (and anime). And from the subject matter I would never have realised how much Adachi is about the life and the characters and not just the sports he has picked to write about.

    I’ll be buying anything I can legally get in a language I can read/watch.

  4. *Spoiler Alert*
    I don’t feel as though Wakaba’s death was meant to be the defining tragic moment of the series. I mean it’s definitely a tragic event in the series, so that’s it- we care about the characters left behind too and see how they deal with the tragedy and continue on with their daily lives. I felt like it was a pretty effective cliffhanger to the first volume because I was eager to see the progress of Ko, Aoba, etc.
    I think one reason why I’m enjoying Cross Game so much is because, like a lot of other MMFeasters have mentioned, it sets itself apart from other shonen/sports manga. We expect those defining, heart-wrenching moments from a lot of shonen manga, and they’re great when done well, but it’s a lot more difficult to set us up from the start and with just implications, like a baseball cap in the water, move our own emotions as we understand what it means to the characters.

    • MOAR SPOILERS!!

      I agree with you to some extent – considering how much Wakaba is the one reason why Ko and Aoba don’t take a closer look at each other for so long, that is a big separator indeed – but when you consider the role of Kazuya’s death on the storyline in Touch and the way that changes how his twin sees himself and his need to take their childhood love Minami to the Koshien – now THAT was a full-on game changer. Especially as Kazuya had been fully fleshed out and and part of the series for some volumes.

      • Ooo right! It’s interesting to compare Cross Game and Touch because obviously they both use the early death of a character to shape the story but we can already tell in Cross Game that Adachi is doing it a bit differently this time. And which reminds me, I need to finish watching Touch. X) I have access to the first season and I think I can dig out the whole series.

  5. Jade Harris says:

    I dunno, David, I have to disagree on some of the action sequences. Yes, the real focus of the action is on the characters rather than the game, but a good action sequence plays off and punctuates that drama. Too many times in Cross Game, what could have been some dramatic action is just a character filling us in on what we should be seeing. Aoba and the old man have to tell us how the game is going because we can’t actually see how the game is going, they’re words are only necessary because the art isn’t selling us, the rest of the story shows simple reaction expressions could have provided the same punctuation were the visual action more competent. Ultimately though, Adachi plays baseball-less baseball comic game pretty well. Judging from the weak action where it’s supposed to be showcased though, as in the pitch example you posted, I have to believe Adachi is dancing around his weak action skill to some extent.

    I’m only being hard on it because I love it so much though.

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Trackbacks

  1. [...] Manga Curmudgeon: “10 Things I Love About Cross Game” by David Welsh [...]

  2. [...] Welsh, who’s been a big cheerleader for the series, posts the “10 Things I Love About Cross Game” at “Manga Curmudgeon” and does a great job picking out the series [...]

  3. [...] Manga Moveable Feast continues with David Welsh’s list of ten things he loves about Cross Game. There’s a whole lot of writin’ going on, so be sure to check out the archive post at [...]

  4. [...] buzz, an unspoken emptiness that the characters quietly integrate into the rituals of their lives. In his praise for the series, David Welsh astutely observes that Adachi’s dialogue is “understated” and that Cross Game as [...]

  5. [...] and learn from it. Case in point – earlier this week, David Welch at the Manga Curmudgeon explained some of the reasons why he loves Cross Game. (This article is excellent reading, by the way, and I recommend it to all of [...]

  6. [...] David Welsh is right: the mono no aware all but wafts up from any given spread in a fine mist. The interplay of the self-evidently handmade character drawings are so often juxtaposed against realist, photographic, miscellaneous certainty, that it becomes by accidental procedural self-reference a showcase for the delicacy of humanness before greater and older things. From this, the first ‘book’ of Cross Game, when the characters are little, becomes a striking thing indeed on a second reading, both because Adachi so blatantly foreshadows his concluding twist in dialogue, and from the constant interjection of looming skies and big bodies of water, time becoming threatening, the world something that swallows you up exquisitely, horrible and lovely. Summer hits like a mushroom cloud. [...]

  7. [...] Welsh lists ten reasons to love Cross Game, Mitsuru Adachi’s manga about a pair of baseball [...]

  8. [...] Cross Game is awesome. I know it, and apparently David knows that too! [...]

  9. [...] Game is awesome. I know it, and apparently David knows that too! JustinJustin is the Editor-In-Chief/ Founder of Organization Anti-Social Geniuses. You can follow [...]

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