Sunday, May 22, 2011

MMF: Cross Game

Sean here, introducing another guest post. I think my three Cross Game reviews as well as my overview of Mitsuru Adachi say what I want, and I don't want to either repeat myself or spoil future volumes. So I've asked another old friend of mine, David Tai, to contribute an essay. David is, like last month's guest Stefan Gagne, an old-school fanfic writer. He's also a huge Adachi fan, and had a great deal to say about Cross Game.

For many people, Cross Game will be their first encounter with Mitsuru Adachi.

Adachi's manga has been published in the US a couple times in the past, a series of short stories eventually compiled into "Short Program" and "Short Program 2". The Short Program manga were released by Viz, but were not widely exposed to what is now a much larger US audience. While diverse in nature, the short stories are reminiscent of O. Henry in that they explore people, how they interact with others and their use of irony and twist endings.

In Japan however, it is his long-running serials that he's best known for- from his first (Nine) to his most recent (Asaoka High School Baseball Club Diary: Over Fence), he establishes his characters and premise early on, and then spends much time engaging in world-building and in adding wrinkles and delightful new dimensions to his characters. However, Cross Game is the first, and hopefully not the last, of the long-running serials that Viz has brought to the US.

In approaching Cross Game, one has to first understand that Adachi has done many baseball manga; Nine, Touch, H2, Cross Game. Each succeeding baseball manga is essentially re-invented for a new generation of Japanese readers, but there are certain tropes he always uses: his protagonist, a perfectly ordinary high school boy; the sweet and lovable heroine that every schoolboy falls in love with and with whom the protagonist gravitates towards; a tragedy that propels his protagonist and his heroine onto a new path towards maturity; and baseball, in which the protagonist develops tremendous skills and is used as a metaphor towards growing up.

Cross Game, his most recent completed baseball serial, hits every one of those tropes, but twists them in different ways. A good deal of Adachi's writing is written with a certain wink for the audience (his promoting of other Adachi series) and a play on certain expectations. Previous iterations of his manga have played on the 'tragedy' trope, but usually to indicate the end is near; here, though, the tragic incident happens nearly immediately, leaving experienced Adachi readers wondering exactly what to expect.

Small touches like that keep things fresh for the experienced Adachi readers. For those who have yet to read Adachi, however, they will find that Cross Game showcases what readers appreciate most about Adachi: his refusal to take himself too seriously, his willingness to develop the story at a steady pace, his ability to introduce little elements that become realized later in the story, and most of all, the slice of life moments in which he develops his characters in small ways as they move, slowly but surely, towards the end of their story. It is this character development that is perhaps his greatest strength. Adachi's characters evolve with a maturity and care that is difficult to find in any literary form, let alone manga.

Ko Kitamura, Cross Game's protagonist, is first met here as a young schoolboy, unlike most Adachi protagonists. As such, he has a young child's concerns: avoiding getting beat up by the school bullies, getting his allowance (usually by hawking his parents' products), and dealing with 'that girl', Wakaba Tsukishima.

Adachi spends an entire volume developing what he titles 'The Season of Wakaba'. There are many little moments showcasing just how close Wakaba and Ko are, the way Wakaba drives the unmotivated Ko to do things, the little struggles between Ko Kitamura and his young crowd, and Wakaba's sisters (all the Tsukishima girls are named after leaves, hence the four-leaf clover in the Cross Game logo) with whom he has varying levels of friendliness. Adachi displays a deft touch as a minor scene where Wakaba notices Ko making a list for his parents' store leads into scenes with much deeper meaning, when she presents him a list of what she would like for future birthdays that ends, at age 20, with an engagement ring.

And then tragedy strikes; Wakaba, who has shown every signs of being that Adachi heroine he so typically uses, dies. Mourning ensues, and then the 'second season' begins, as Adachi skips several years. One of Adachi's subtle tricks reflects the death of Wakaba: the logo reflects this change in seasons. The logo for volume 1 has four fully-colored leaves, but thereafter, every other volume displays 3 normally colored leaves, and one discolored leaf.

The second 'season' begins, as the protagonist enters high school. All proceeds a bit more to expectation with the protagonist starting to deal with high school and with girls.

And it is then that we realize that the heroine of Cross Game is not Wakaba, but Aoba Tsukishima, the sister who hates Ko with a passion. Aoba is not your typical Adachi heroine. While most Adachi heroines tend to be sweet, tender, and supportive of the protagonists, Aoba stands out as every bit resistant to the calm acceptance of Ko. Where Wakaba would have believed and supported in Ko unconditionally (as has been typical of his heroines in Rough, Touch, and countless others), Aoba pushes Ko away any chance she can. A common trope for manga, but for Adachi, this is a drastic change - in practically every other story he's written, the heroine and the protagonist naturally gravitate towards each other until all that's needed is a confession of love.

Because Aoba and Ko are often at conflict, the story takes on an air similar to Touch, another of Adachi's manga in which family colors how the heroine and the protagonist interact. For both Ko and Aoba, the shadow of Wakaba hangs over them heavily. For Ko, it is the great love of his young life, the one who kept him focused and motivated, and for Aoba, the big sister whom she loves more than anything else is missing from her life as a calm buffer.

It's Wakaba's ghost that motivates them both in different ways- Ko takes his motivation for baseball from Wakaba's dream of Koshien, the baseball tournament to which all Japanese high school baseball players aspire to. The birthday gift list that Wakaba gave to Ko remains a driving motivation for Ko years after she's gone, the most tangible physical reminder he has of her dreams. The influence of Wakaba on Aoba does not play out till later in the manga, but hovers over her nonetheless, in minor ways.

Wakaba's shadow can be seen with other characters such as Akaishi, the bully who grew up to be Ko's mentor catcher because he loved Wakaba and wanted to fulfill her dream, and Momiji, the youngest Tsukishima who over time realizes she cannot take Wakaba's place. And while other characters are not directly involved, even they get caught up, as Ko's pursuit to fill that dream encompasses them. Even the taciturn slugger Azuma is drawn in, finding his own dream of Koshien mirrored in Wakaba's. And as more and more people find their dream through Ko, he becomes Wakaba's most enduring legacy - because she saw his greatness before anyone else.

For people who have certain expectations of sports manga (Protagonist learns new skills! POWERS UP! Greater challenges lie ahead!), you don't get that here; what you see at the hands of Mitsuru Adachi is the maturation of people paralleling the development of their skills.

And yet it is not Ko Kitamura who develops the most over this series as he goes from a person who lacks motivation without Wakaba's encouragement to a self-driven pitching Ace determined to live up to her dream. It is Aoba Tsukishima who develops the most. Her self-assurance of being the ace pitcher in middle school has to give way to the reality in high school that she confronts being a girl in Japan's male-oriented baseball culture. It is perhaps no wonder that she fights her best to find ways to fit in with the team, and her adversarial relationship to Ko highlights that.

It is not until Ko showcases his undeniable talent that Aoba's character arc starts to develop, and the shadow that Wakaba left upon her begins to play itself out; Aoba had known of Wakaba's dream, but denied it, in large part because of her own dream, in which she would date someone who could throw a 100 mph fastball. And it hinders Aoba, because Wakaba had told her that Ko could do it... and that she shouldn't take him from her.

And so while Ko's arc plays out and it becomes apparent that Ko is destined to fulfill Wakaba's dream, the question of how Aoba's arc plays out becomes paramount, and brings a new angle and twist; rarely does Adachi really play out how his heroine develops, as he does here with Aoba. Ko may be the protagonist of this story, but it is Aoba's development that drives it. It is Aoba's pitching skill that Ko emulates in his drive to fulfill Wakaba's dream, and it is Aoba who helps Ko develop and refine his skills while struggling with her own Wakaba ghost. It may have been Wakaba Tsukishima who saw the potential in Ko; it is Aoba Tsukishima who sees that potential realized, and begins to see what it is that her sister fell in love with. It is Aoba who struggles to accept her feelings about Ko, and she even lies to herself about it. As a result, then, Cross Game shifts from Ko Kitamura as soon as his future as a pitching ace is clearly established to the inevitable confrontation between Wakaba's ghost and Aoba's dream.

Mitsuru Adachi begins Cross Game with Ko Kitamura, and ends it with Aoba Tsukishima, and in the process, turns out perhaps his most well-rounded sports/romance manga.

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