Thursday, October 14, 2010

Cross Game Volume 1

By Mitsuru Adachi. Released in Japan in 3 separate volumes by Shogakukan, serialized in the magazine Shonen Sunday. Released in North America by Viz.

It feels like this has been a very long wait. Not just since Viz announced they'd licensed the manga, but long before that. Despite the presence of Short Program here several years ago, there was always a lack of Adachi here in North America. I imagine many manga fans, reading the back pages biography talking about him being one of the two artists most associated with Shonen Sunday (the other being his contemporary, rival and friend Rumiko Takahashi) are blinking and going, "Really?"

Yes, really. And now with Cross Game out you may have a chance to see why. The first volume (that is, the first third of this volume) sets things up nicely. A bratty but likeable young protagonist, whose main fault seems to be his inability to apply himself. His cute girl next door not-quite-girlfriend, who clearly already has his life planned out ahead of him, whether he likes it or not. And her younger sister, who's a grumpy but athletic tomboy who resents our hero for taking up all of her sister's time. A cute coming-of-age story with a potential love triangle, it's clear that Wakaba has Ko wrapped around her little finger, and it'd take a lot to change that.

Then we get 'a lot' at the end of Volume 1. Without spoiling, I will note that I was worried the impact would be lost coming in the middle of Viz's thick omnibus, but my worry appeared unfounded. Ko's reaction is picture perfect, and the whole thing shows Adachi's craft in drawing huge wellsprings of emotions from small, realistic details.

Cue Part 2 of the manga (the chapters even reset), and a jump ahead 4 years later, to where Ko is about to enter high school. He's still pretty unmotivated - at least in public - and Aoba is still a grumpy tomboy, but the rest of the world has grown up a bit, and baseball is on the horizon. (Note: this being a Viz shonen manga, there will be no footnotes or explanations, so if you don't know what the Koushien is, go here.) Ko joins the team, but is relegated to the second squad, mostly as he hides his talent.

I can't help but note that Aoba notes she has no faith in Ko to take charge of his own destiny, and in many ways she has the right idea. Ko can be so laid-back he risks being uninvolving, but that's also what makes him so intriguing. (Someone I know describes Ko and Aoba as 'Ranma and Akane on lithium', which is not quite accurate, but...) There's only one time we see him get upset in the entire manga, and it's rather startling; he grabs Aoba's collar after she says something unthinking to her younger sister Momiji, and looks like he might even hit her, but instead backs off. It helps show that Ko DOES get upset, he's just not naturally demonstrative.

In fact, Ko and Aoba almost gender reverse the usual manga types, with Aoba being the one trying to figure out what Ko is thinking, and his own emotions and needs being hard to read and fairly well buried. Their relationship is fascinating, not being like brother and sister (Ko gets that from Momiji, who seems to have become the sister he bonds with the most), but something almost deeper than that; it's noted how similar Ko and Aoba are.

One other thing I wanted to note is the old-school 4th-wall breaking that occurs throughout the manga. It calms down a bit as the manga continues, but will never go away entirely. Ko hawks the re-release of Touch, Adachi's early 80s baseball classic; his friends read H3 and H4, parodies of another baseball manga H2 which Adachi did in the mid 1990s; mentions Short Program, which is the only one of these to be released in North America, if long out of print; and also discusses Katsu, the boxing manga Adachi had written right before this. Adachi himself cameos to lampshade some things or make a bad gag; and characters speak to the reader and talk about their character introductions. This is a habit of Adachi's (Takahashi used to do it as well; check out any volume of Urusei Yatsura), one I think they both got from Osamu Tezuka, who used to do things like this as well. It can take getting used to, but I found it cute.

Cross Game is not the type of shonen manga we've seen here before. Most of the sports manga that has come out here has been from Shueisha's Jump line, and features a lot of manly tears, screaming, and overreactions. Sunday's sports manga tends to be subtler (and just as long; H2 ran for over 30 volumes, and another Sunday baseball manga, Major by Takuya Mitsuda, ran for over 70), but no less involving. Viz noted that Cross Game started slow (and yes, also that it likely wasn't a NYT bestseller - I'd love to be proved wrong on that) and decided to release this 17-volume series as 8 omnibuses instead. It helps here, as you get further drawn into the story, which picks up speed once the manga jumps ahead 4 years. Even if you aren't a baseball fan, I'd still recommending getting Cross Game, showing Adachi at the height of his creative powers, and dealing with 'growing up' issues in a way that appeals to young boys just as much as Super Saiyans or ninjas. Highly recommended.

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