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Seishu's post-Daimon team gets its first real workout when they go up against Sannou, a team known for its meticulous research and exploitation of opponents' weaknesses. Their true challenge awaits them further down the tournament bracket, however. Ryuou Gakuin is a perennial contender in the competition to get to Koshien and understandably they're not too concerned about facing the inexperienced Seishu. They probably should be, though. Later, Ko is blindsided when he discovers that his new next-door neighbor is a dead ringer for Wakaba, and Aoba tries out for the national women's team.
Cross Game doesn't synopsize well. That's particularly true now that it's past the summary-ready hook of its opening tragedy. The above synopsis really does cover the entire plot of these thirteen episodes. Which makes them sound terribly uneventful. And in a way they are. Truth be told, little of moment happens in any given (non-game) episode. Most of Cross Game is just its characters living their lives, in all their petty glory. An entire episode can pass during which all that happens is Akane—Wakaba's doppelganger—walking around town surprising everyone with how much she looks like Wakaba. To your average kid (at whom the series is not aimed, despite its TV-G rating) or attention-span-deficient adult, the show could easily seem suspended in some kind blue-skied, cicada-chirping stasis. The insertion of a recap episode (to remind us of Wakaba's postmortem influence, as if anyone needed the reminder) does nothing to correct the inertialess impression.
But what doesn't—and really, can't—make it into a synopsis is the emotional life teeming beneath Cross Game's placid surface. While nothing of moment is happening, the rich inner lives of Cross Game's fully-realized characters are subtly but substantially evolving, breaking to the surface in ways that gently ache, thrill and amuse. A running joke about the uniform reaction to Akane (whoever spots her drops whatever they're carrying on the ground) is a tiny window into the still-raw wounds inflicted by Wakaba's death. An injury reveals the depth of Ko and Aoba's mutual understanding and unspoken affection. The words "really happy," uttered during a rare lapse in Akaishi's stoicism, hint at the trove of conflicted feelings Akane's arrival has inspired in him. Aoba's reaction to the Ryuou game's conclusion speaks to her abiding loneliness at being barred from playing with her team. And, in perhaps the series' single most welcome development, Akane's interference in Aoba and Ko's established dynamic makes crystalline the pair's feelings for each other—without so much as a word uttered. There's really no word for it but beautiful.
The series isn't simplistic enough to rely solely on its cast and emotional undercurrents to keep it running. Ko's quest to fulfill Wakaba's final dream and stand on the mound at Koshien moves forward, bringing Seishu up against harder and harder opponents. Aoba's women's team tryouts also promise to stir the plot up some. Both developments introduce enough baseball action to prove that the series can ratchet up the sporting tension (thank you, snazzy soundtrack) even without relying on Coach Daimon's convenient villainy. But still, the baseball games are better enjoyed for Ko's unflappably dry wit than their adrenaline content, which says a lot about the series' priorities.
It's easy to criticize Cross Game's visuals. Original author Mitsuru Adachi's jug-eared characters are an acquired taste, to put it mildly. Niggling problems with movement through (as opposed to across) cinematic spaces persist. Bulked-up frame rates are not among the show's advantages. For some reason director Osamu Sekita insists on repeatedly panning up to the exact same cottony cumulus clouds. But those kinds of potshots are a little cheap. And not just because they overlook the things the series does right—like sunny palettes and fan-service that appreciates the unusual sex appeal of Aoba's athletic angularity—but also because they overlook more important stylistic faults.
Namely that the show doesn't fully understand that it is best served by simply keeping out of Adachi's way. The show knows enough to let his wry humor alone (no "humorous" music here, thank you very much), and to keep the ham away from his sharp, witty dialogue. But it doesn't always take the same tack when bracing his more overtly emotional sequences. When it tries dissecting its characters' emotions with blunt music and rusty cinematic devices (hello ye ol' wavy flashback transition) the series does a serious disservice to the winning realism of Adachi's customary emotional attack, which relies on hard-earned, slowly dawning realizations for its power. The results of the series' meddling can be potent—its use of Ayaka's lovely "Koi Kogarete Mita Yume" as a de facto grief theme is particularly effective—but can also feel distinctly out of place.
In the face of Adachi's towering skill as a chronicler of love, life and baseball, though, a few hiccups are less than nothing. Like the best of Adachi's anime oeuvre, Cross Game finds new appeal by celebrating the oldest tricks: great characters, relatable stories, and old-fashioned chemistry. In an artistic environment too often ruled by codified gimmickry, where the stories told have long since become simulacra of simulacra, it stands apart: a monument to organic storytelling, a reminder that the best stories are the ones closest to us.
Overall (sub) : A-
Story : A
Animation : B
Art : B
Music : B+
+ Meaty baseball action; quietly moves the main relationships in new and important directions.
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