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MMF: Cross Game by Mitsuru Adachi

This post originally appeared at The Panelists as two posts on May 22 and 23, 2011. The first part is my Manga Moveable Feast introduction to Cross Game/Adachi and the second is my longer post on the series.

About Mitsuru Adachi (or… “What I Could Find About Adachi on the Internet”):

Mitsuru Adachi has been a published manga artist since 1970. Over the past 40 years he has published many series primarily in the various Shonen Sunday magazines. He is most famous for his shonen baseball manga such as Touch, H2, and Cross Game, and most of his series involve sports in one way or another, including series about swimming and boxing. His works have been adapted into a number of anime series and live action series and movies. According to the brief biography in Viz’s edition of Cross Game his works have sold over 200 million copies and he is in the “top echelon” of manga creators. Take that for what you will, but it does appear that his career has been long and popular.

His appearances in English have been few. Viz published two volumes of short stories called Short Program in 2000 and 2004. Copies of this are kind of rare, and the cheapest one I could find on was $25 with the next cheapest being $40 (for the completist only, I guess). Cross Game is his first series to be released officially in English (oddly enough three of Adachi’s baseball manga–H2, Touch, and Cross Game–have been published in France, perhaps baseball wins for being exotic there?), though there are scanlations of a great number of his works online. I probably wouldn’t have picked up Cross Game if it weren’t for my reading of the scanlation of his baseball series H2.

From what I’ve read of his work, Adachi’s works share many qualities both visually and narratively. Besides sports they mostly feature teen male protagonists, often focus on siblings, and tend to combine the coming of age story with teen romance and light comedy. Adachi’s comedy often includes metafictional touches, like the appearance of Adachi himself, comments on the work process, and characters commenting on extradiegetic elements. In this respect in reminds me of some of Tezuka’s comedic turns. His character designs are surprisingly consistent, especially if you look at a few of the protagonists. For instance here are male and female leads from three of Adachi’s most recent series (images from Adachi Fan):

Cross Game:


Itsumo Misora:

See what I mean?

About Cross Game:

Cross Game ran from 2005-2010 in Weekly Shonen Sunday and has been collected in 17 volumes. Viz, wisely, is releasing the series in multi-volumes. Volume 1 contains three of the original volumes with subsequent volumes including 2 of the originals. So, Viz’s translation will last 8 volumes. Volume 3 was just released in April, comprising volumes 6 and 7 of the original. It was adapted into a 50 episode anime which you can view in English online for free from Viz. I haven’t watched the anime, so no comments on that, maybe someone else during the MMF will have something to say about it.

The series protagonist is Ko Kitamura, the son of sports equipment store owners. He grew up alongside the Tsukishima sisters. Wakaba is his own age (they were born on the same day), and Aoba (who is the second protagonist) who is a year younger. The Tsukishima family own a cafe and batting cage, where Ko spends a lot of time hitting.

It’s hard not to discuss this series without spoiling the first volume, so be forewarned, I’m spoiling the first volume…

Ko and Wakaba are very close fourth graders and volume 1 shows them interacting, buying birthday presents for each other, etc. It also introduces some of the other characters that end up forming Ko’s baseball teammates and friends. At the end of the volume, though, Wakaba drowns at swimming camp (saving a younger girl). Her death forms a pivotal moment in the story and affects much of the underlying motivations and emotions that follow for Ko, Aoba, and many of the other characters.

The second volume moves forward to Ko entering high school. More characters are introduced, and what seems to be the larger overarching plot of the series is revealed. The day before her death Wakaba revealed to Ko’s friend Akaichi, that her dream was to see Ko and Akaichi playing in the Koshien, which is the stadium where the annual high school baseball tournaments in Japan are played (i.e. it’s like the World Series but high school). And so, that’s what they start working towards.

Of course things are not that simple. There is an antagonistic coach, other players, romance, unexpected rivals, unexpected friends, and all kinds of plot that goes on. Aoba, Wakaba’s younger sister, becomes a major character. She is an extremely skilled pitcher and a figure of romantic interest, who seems destined to be matched up with Ko (because that’s how these things go). And of course, there are baseball games. Adachi is very skilled at showing baseball games in a way that is not too detailed, but also not too generic. He mixes the playing itself with the emotional drama playing out between various players, rivals, and spectators. In this way he can make a game last a whole volume without it feeling like one is watching a whole baseball game (which would be pretty tedious in comic form even for a baseball fan like I).

So that’s a quick introduction. More on the series tomorrow from me. And then we’ll have a few more posts during the week from other writers: Craig Fischer, Andrew White, and Joe McCulloch. I’ll also be rounding up all the participating posts at other blogs throughout the week. Stay tuned.

A shonen sports manga would seem like an unlikely manga choice for a guy (me) who makes non-narrative comics and is often writing about work that exists on the fringes of narrative or genre. But, alas, while baseball drew my interest at first, Mitsuru Adachi’s skill and artistry made me a fan.

Cross Game is a shonen sports manga. Viz rates their edition at “Teen” but, almost halfway through, I can’t see how this couldn’t be read by younger kids (or maybe I know nothing about children, which is likely). A light hearted coming of age story is not exactly my normal reading fair. In fact, I’m not sure when I last read any shonen manga let alone one that wasn’t a sci-fi story (as much of the very early manga translation were when I was reading manga more indiscriminately). So what it is about this series that attracts me?

I could be really off-base, given my lack of experience in the genre, but it seems to me that Adachi is very skilled at working the genre. These types of stories (teen coming of age, sports) have a certain familiar storyline, tropes that everyone with any experience reading/watching narratives will already know. You know the hero is going to reach his goal. It doesn’t take much to figure out the romantic through-line that will play out, oh so slowly, over the course of the series. Of course the girl that is so quick to disavow her interest in the hero will fall for him. The bully becomes a valued friend. The plucky team will win out against the more experienced team with less heart. The only characters on that team that we will ever learn anything about are the only ones that will stick around during the rest of the story.

Not all these things have happened, yet (7 out of 17 volumes in*), in Cross Game. Some have and some are just my generic expectations of what will happen. Maybe Adachi will throw me for a loop (ok, he definitely–no way, no how–won’t have the hero fail to reach his goal, I just can’t fathom that), but the majority of the time he won’t. And I don’t really care, there is something to be said for the fulfilling of expectations, for the following the well-trod path, at least occasionally, as long as the execution is skilled.

Adachi does, though, throw off a few expectations from the end of volume 1 to the beginning of volume 2. And you can’t talk about it without spoilers, so… SPOILERS, though honestly, I was ruined for the surprise ending before I had started even reading the series, so I think the plot points are out there already fairly widely and I don’t feel like it ruined my enjoyment. Volume 1 sets up Ko, our male protagonist, and Wakaba, our female protagonist (so we expect), as grade school kids with a generically expected future romance, childhood sweethearts. Of course they’ll have a high school romance, not, one expects, without some obstacles, but still… they’ll get together. She even expects they’ll get married some day (she puts “engagement ring” on a year-by-year list of suggested presents for her that she gives to him).

Then, she dies. Volume 1 ends just after her death by drowning. And volume two picks up with Ko entering high school. Wakaba’s younger sister Aoba becomes the real female protagonist and Wakaba becomes the sainted dead girl. The characters (particularly Ko and Aoba, but also Ko’s friend, and catcher, Akaichi) are seen thinking about her, visualizing her presence. And, as these things go, her last words that we know about (spoken to Akaichi before she goes off and dies), her dream of Ko and Akaichi playing in the Koshien baseball tournament, become Ko and Akaichi’s dream and the driving long term goal of the series.

This taking on of another’s dream is not limited to Ko and Akaichi, though. As the story unfolds we find this theme repeated in a different form in the character of Azuma, another baseball player. He too seems to be living to play out his brother’s failed ambitions to reach the Koshien, though in this case he is motivated by a more direct sense of guilt. I say, “more direct”, cause it is not clear how much a sense of guilt plays into the Ko/Akaichi/Wakaba dream. I’m curious to see how these plots play out. Will Adaichi treat them uncriticially (probably) or will the idea of following a dead fourth grader’s dream start to seem a little silly (doubtfully, though wouldn’t that be interesting). (I guess I could read the plot synopses out there, or watch the anime, but I’ll stick it out in serialization as long as Viz doesn’t cancel the series.) I also wonder how my expectations for the Ko/Aoba romance will play against their feelings about the dead Wakaba. There is space for some interesting drama there, though I’m not convinced Adachi will go too far with it.

Of course after that first volume surprise there isn’t much that doesn’t go as you expect it would… Aoba’s cousin gets mentioned (they see him in a photo), so you know the mystery character that appears a few chapters later is him. And how can you doubt he will prove to be 1) a baseball player (or at least somehow end up on the team) and 2) somehow interfere between Aoba and Ko (who haven’t, yet, admitted any feelings for each other).

So… wait… why am I reading this series? Adachi does what he does really well. He works the characters and the plot so you want to know what happens next, and he keeps throwing in enough new characters and plot twists (as any serial must) to keep things interesting. For me, it may partially be a case of my lack of experience with comics in most of the genres Cross Game falls in: sports manga, shonen manga, teen coming of age stories. I couldn’t read a lot of series like this, but one really well done one will do. Kind of like how Nana is pretty much the only shojo manga series on my shelves.

And even knowing how the story will go is not the sum total of the interest it holds. I’m a huge fan of Yasujiro Ozu’s films (on which more another day, perhaps). Even watching most of them the first time you have a sense of how the story will end (marriage or death in most cases), and the second time through you definitely know how it will end. Yet, that doesn’t stop me from watching them multiple times and from gaining enjoyment out of the films: the shots, the compositions, the colors (when there is color), the interplay of the characters. There is much more to appreciate than the narrative.

So I guess what I really love is Adachi’s style and pacing. The series goes on its way in a leisurely manner and Adachi’s images lack the frenetic ostentation of so much manga targeted at boys, perhaps it is just his origin in the 70’s, or the subtlety of some of his scenes. As a whole, I’m attracted to elements of the work, sections here and there, rather than what amounts from the whole.

Let’s look at a couple pages…

Cross Game v.1 p. 152-3

Cross Game v.1 p.154

Late in volume 1, Wakaba has gone off to swimming camp, and Ko is walking home at night. The newscaster mentions the weather (which comes up a lot in the series, mostly visually). The second page shows us a peaceful nature scene. It is now daytime, the reader is left out of the context. Where are we? How does this relate to any of the characters? It’s a nice day out somewhere. Then, the third page, focusing in on the water, fast moving, gaining some menace as the images use a closer viewpoint. End of chapter.

It is only in the next chapter that this scene takes on any significance. For in the next chapter, we learn of Wakaba’s drowning. The first time reading the series, you think nothing of this sequence, it’s just another transition, another page of setting (which Adachi does a lot, on which, more later). The second time around, though, you understand. That speaks something to Adachi’s work, that, despite it’s origin in a serialized magazine, he is expecting that readers will reread, that something will be gained from rereading. It also speaks a bit to the concept of death and memory. When a person dies, settings, objects, words, feelings, can take a new meaning when revisited. The passage of time changes our conception.

More so, than the generic dream of going to the Koshien, it is in the moments like this where Wakaba’s death forms the real heart of the series.

Similarly, in the first chapter of volume 2, the reader still not aware that 4-5 years have passed since volume 1, we find Ko waking for school.

Cross Game v.1 p.198

We’ve seen the two alarm clocks in volume 1. They were birthday presents from Wakaba. That panel in the lower right is silent and relatively uninflected, yet, knowing the origin of the alarm clocks we guess Ko’s thoughts are of Wakaba (and on a first read through, this could be only days after her death). A second time through, we know the time has passed, Ko is still thinking of her, and having passed through the story once we also can imagine Ko is looking at something else in the room. He keeps the birthday present list Wakaba gave him in volume 1 on his wall.

Cross Game v.1 p.212-13

Another three page sequence on the same theme. A half page of Adachi’s pillow shots, returns us to Ko walking. He sees a baseball hat floating in the water which returns us to the baseball hat Wakaba borrows from Ko before leaving for camp. A hat her father gives back to Ko at her funeral. This is fairly subtle, Adachi doesn’t need to tell us what Ko is thinking about, the images make it clear enough. He hear’s his name, and, turning the page…

Cross Game v.1 p.214

Ko sees Wakaba for a second, but then reality intrudes, it is just her little sister, now the same age Wakaba was at her death.

Moving on, I have to talk about the other main part of the series, baseball. Adachi clearly knows his baseball and if the internet is to be believed, he even owns a baseball team. But he doesn’t make his manga all about the baseball. He using the game narratively in subservience to the characters and their stories. The games he shows are about the individual characters he is focusing on, and the primary action he focuses on is the confrontation between pitcher and batter (with catcher thrown in as the third part of the equation) as well as the interactions between team members and coaches. His portrayal of the game as a battle between pitcher and batter works into the sense of battle/fighting predominant in so much shonen manga, but it also provides a dramatic hook that can be understood without extensive baseball knowledge. Even someone with the most rudimentary knowledge of baseball knows that the pitcher doesn’t want to allow the batter to hit the ball, and that the batter wants to hit the ball. Drama. Conflict. It’s no surprise then that the protagonists of Adachi’s baseball series are always pitchers and sluggers, with a catcher thrown in as a secondary character. You don’t really learn much about the fielders, you often don’t even know what position the slugger plays. He’s unimportant in the field, only when he’s at the plate.

So you can get something out of the baseball scenes without knowing too much, though Adachi does show his knowledge. For instance, in the big game in volume 4 we see Ko pitching against the varsity team from his own school (there’s this whole thing about the new varsity coach and… well it’s just plot…). Aoba (who we see in the bottom corner) had pitched to the varsity team at one of their practices, so she learned a lot of valuable intelligence on the hitters. Here we see Ko putting it to use.

Cross Game v.2 p.107

You have to put this scene together a bit. The batter swings. In panel two we can see he connects to the ball pretty far in front of himself. The ball bounces over the first baseman. Easy out. Aoba notes that the batter was great against fastballs. To those who know about baseball, it’s clear what happened here. The batter is strong against fastballs, he expects a fastball (Ko throws a lot of them, as do most pitchers). Ko throws a slower pitch and the batter, swinging sooner because he expects the ball to be moving faster, has his bat way “out in front” (as they say) and hits the pitch too early to make an effective hit. Now you don’t need to know all that to follow the story, but it does show that there is a lot going on.

Cross Game v.2 p.118

I like the first panel on this page, as we see Adachi switching to a more realistic figure drawing to show the stopped action, surely based on photographic reference.

Cross Game v.2 p.94-5

Here’s a nice two page spread from volume 4. First thing you notice is the way the panel layout really works to add a movement between both pages. It’s dynamic but also in accordance with the content itself, with the large triangle in the center providing the real thrust of the homerun from right to left. The right hand page quickly sets up the locations and oppositions: Pitcher in one direction, batter in the opposite direction (setting up their opposition), and observer (that’s Aoba in the middle panel watching the game and commenting on it for the reader) watching it all, but here pointed in the direction of the ball (thus stacking the movement of the page against Ko, the pitcher. Adachi uses the speedlines and freeze frame type actions to play up the movement with a bit of an optical illusion in the bottom panel where it looks like the ball is passing through the bat. The bat is just poking out of the panel borders adding a little punctuation to its movement.

Where the right page is all dynamic quick motion, the left page slows down the movement a bit, the calm after the storm as everyone watches the ball fly. The close-up on Aoba’s eyes in the right page acts in accordance with the reader’s viewing. The compositions of the panels on the left page provide a nice sequence of close/distant, distant/close. There’s the ball in the air, the focus of everyone, still nearby to the batter, the pitcher, the observers. Then, it’s far away, just a tiny circle in the sky. The transition simultaneously slows the action and emphasizes the speed of the balls movement. And then the spread finished off with the antagonist haughty coach in his dugout, grinning at what he thinks is his great success.

It’s a really great sequence that is easy to read right past without appreciating how well Adachi has put it together to emphasize a lot of important details and oppositions. And it is that type of work that really makes Adachi such fun to read.

*Henceforth, referencing volumes, I’m talking about the Japanese numbering (i.e. volume 1 means the first third of Viz’s first book) except my images which are referencing to specific pages in the Viz volumes.