Monday, January 17, 2011

Cross Game Volume 2

By Mitsuru Adachi. Released in Japan in 2 separate volumes by Shogakukan, serialized in the magazine Shonen Sunday. Released in North America by Viz.

The first thing I would like to note is that the mangaka who can wring emotion from the art on the page is rare. But the mangaka that can wring emotion from the LOGO is even rarer. Just the sight of the four-leaf clover, one of the leaves now dimmed to a duller green, made me melancholy.

After setting up his cast and setting in the first 3 volumes of Cross Game, Adachi spends most of these two doing what he does best: writing baseball games. From Chapter 23-35, we get a faceoff between Ko's 'portable' squad and the regular varsity team, featuring ace slugger Azuma. There's a lot going on here: the varsity coach's stubborn jerkishness, which banishes comic relief pitcher Senda to the other team early on. Koh facing actual batters in a game for the first time, including people who actually hit off of him. And Aoba, in the stands, offering running commentary and managing to cheer Ko on while at the same time maintaining her usual skeptical disbelief.

Ko, needless to say, is good. Very good. But he's not the best starter in Japan yet, or even the best starter in the group. He still has trouble wearing himself out easily, and only gets over that hump when he sacrifices his control to concentrate entirely on speed. And he can sometimes get too full of himself, which leads to the final run that decides the game. Still, as was noted, it was the sort of debut that makes the rest of the team want to play harder just to live up to their teammate.

There is comedy here, of course. Most of it is in the sort of wry grin type - I loved Aoba's reaction to "No fair!", as she cradles her bruised hand. Likewise a few times during the game, Adachi cuts back to the Tsukishima's cafe, where the other two sisters provide fun humor and untranslatable puns. (Credit to Viz for just going with them as best they could.) And yes, Adachi breaks the fourth wall a couple more times, though at least he isn't advertising his old manga anymore.

But there's also some incredible emotion here, all the more amazing by what ISN'T revealed. Adachi and Rumiko Takahashi call each other 'best friends and rivals', and it fits very well, as they each fill in the other's weaknesses with their strengths. In particular, Adachi is a master at letting the reader fill in the blank rather than spelling everything out. Chapter 36 features Ko waiting hand and foot over the shallow manager of the varsity squad, carrying her things and putting up with her degrading comments - as well as intense anger from Aoba, who noted earlier that "that's the kind of guy he is", then got even more annoyed when she saw it, as that ISN'T the kind of guy he is. (Lies between Ko and Aoba dominate the entire series.) Takahashi would milk this misunderstanding for all it's worth. Adachi defuses it three pages later, as Aoba's two friends happened to see the real reason he was doing this. They're confused, but Aoba immediately knows what's going on.

Wakaba is still a major presence in this work, of course. Besides the previous chapter, which ends with Ko putting the Cat Teapot he got by degrading himself into her present box (only 4 years to go till the engagement ring), but things get even scarier when Ko and Senda have to go find Aoba, who has gotten the wrong directions and ended up lost in the woods. Ko, trying to find her, finds instead her shoe. By a roaring river. In the middle of summer. Any self-respecting shonen hero would be having a nervous breakdown by now, given Ko's past memories of Wakaba. Instead, after two panels of panic, we fade back to see... this is actually a video of his panic being shown to Aoba, who is fine.

So Adachi does not have the strength of showing raw emotions the way that Takahashi does. On the other hand, he can use his own staid, unhurried style to let the reader create their own tension, and then get the same release. It works well during the baseball game, and it works doubly well in the summer chapters here. Ko is an undemonstrative hero, but that's why we get the occasional dialogue like "It's good to be busy during the summer... keeps you from thinking too much." It shows us that both Ko and Aoba are still having immense trouble letting go of the past.

At the end of this omnibus, things are much the same place they were last time. The portables have come together as a team, and Ko has shown that he can pitch well in a real game, but they aren't going to varsity anytime soon unless they either convince or ditch the sadistic coach. I can't wait to see how this plays out in Vols. 6 & 7, aka Vol. 3 here, in April.

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