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.