Reviewby Lissa Pattillo,
Born on the same day in the same hospital, Ko and Wakaba have always been close. While Ko may not think much of it, Wakaba has always expected a future for the two of them and a bright future for Ko as a talented baseball player. Wakaba's little sister Aoba has never liked how close they were though, rather bitter as she sees her sister's attention always taken away by Ko. When tragedy strikes, everyone in the families and surrounding neighborhood deal with it in their own way and for several, that way was baseball. Whether training to live up to a loved one's dream or training hard out of dedication and a necessity to cope, baseball plays an important part in the lives of Ko, Aoba and their friends as they find themselves up against the politics and social bumpers of facing life on the field.
For those who've never experienced an Adachi Mitsuru series before, you are in for an experience quite unlike any other in English released manga today. Viz Media's decision to present this series as multiple 3-in-1 omnibus is also just the right way to experience it, making Cross Game a lengthy read that doesn't fail to satisfy with patience rewarded in this tale of life, lose and baseball.
The first third of this book feels the most a character study, a coming of age introduction to the cast which more just so happens to have baseball as a recurring theme. Things feel fairly cut and dry as readers are introduced to the lead character, Ko, and, most importantly at this point in the story his good friend, Wakaba. The share a sweet relationship, platonic in this childhood youth but still charming in the budding of more mature thoughts. Wakaba is quite fond of Ko and already has their future fairly well planned, shown in part by her contribution to an annual gift-giving tradition. As the friendship between the two plays out with a fun sort of coy subtly, a fairly benign story rolls along with walks in the store, interactions with other kids in the neighborhood, talks of the future and trying to make it to school in time. Readers are also introduced to Wakaba 's younger sister, Aoba, who's already making a local name for herself as a strong pitcher, and their family's youngest, Momiji who is an adorable pig-tailed little girl always with a curious eye on her friends and family.
Cross Game feels a little too slow at times as many readers will be left wondering where this series is going to go, where it's going to find it's stride and hook. Despite any waiting eyes, this opening arc ends with an unexpected bang and it sets the story at a new melancholic angle. It also goes far to show off the unique storytelling perspective that Mitsuru Adachi utilizes, most notably in how these characters react. Or perhaps it's better to say how they don't, which is a recurring element throughout the story and Adachi's repertoire of titles in general. The characters are all so subtle in their reactions, very subdued and laid-back. It's easy to say they just don't seem to react to anything much at all, or at least not how you'd expect. They don't generally scream in anger, cry rivers in sadness or dance for joy - but that certainly isn't to say they don't feel, and emote that in their own way. It's all muted, sometimes in truth a little too much for a medium so better known for its exaggerations, but every moment still resonates with a sense of emotion that though withheld, still manages to be no less effective. And when the veil does momentarily fall – a single tear, a beaming smile – you feel it.
Mitsuru Adachi's artwork plays a huge role in this unique presentation. It's delightfully simple but also distractedly similar when it comes to character design, a trait of the style emphasized by the same placid expressions shared across all the characters' faces. Because of this, and realistically simplistic designs (simple hair cuts, generally same shaped face, average clothing,etc.), the majority of the characters look identical, save for a slightly different hair style or outfit. It's pretty difficult to tell characters apart, regardless of gender. It's something that gets easier over time as characters grow up and physical features start to become more unique to their person but in the beginning it's near-impossible to tell some apart, especially Ko and the tomboyish Aoba.
By the second arc of the story, baseball starts becoming a much more integral part of the story. It's also being used by a variety of characters as a comfort from the event of the first part that left such a devastating effect on them all. Aoba, second-youngest of the next-door-neighbor quartet of sisters, takes center stage as a confident, focused and irrefutably talented young woman playing as a pitcher. Ko is still on the fence of actually committing to playing baseball but he still practices as much or more than most while childhood acquaintances continue to play on the field with big ambitions and always a watchful eye on him.
It's fantastic reading a story about talented kids being so skilled out of sheer hard work and determination. Even Ko, whose laid-back attitude gets to even those in the story, still has a strong conviction that's led him to work hard for years to attain the level of skill he has, even if outwardly he doesn't seem like someone who would care enough about anything to do so. A good example is a scene where his Father asks him how long he's been working out and why and it garners an immediate response of 'I don't know' from Ko, though one he soon follows up on upon some actual thought that proves as endearing for readers as it is enlightening for his Father. No one here in this series is your run of the mill shonen-character sporting inhuman abilities or gifted with some sort of otherworldly assistance, these are simply children growing up, learning and working hard to achieve the levels of ability they have for all their own reasons.
Another element that makes Cross Game read differently than other sports-related manga is that it doesn't aim to really teach readers about the sport as you go. There isn't actually a lot of game play in the manga but there is quite a bit of terminology used and a lot of the behind the scenes, almost political talk about the formation of teams as they transition from junior high to high school. Either way, the story never really stops to have someone explain everything that's being said and what results is a story that may have some readers unsure of what exactly is being spoken about but one that never feels like it's preaching or over explaining. It's simply telling a story.
But, that isn't to say the story doesn't have it's own way of reaching out to readers specifically. Adachi loves breaking the fourth wall, and in several cases for the sake of lighthearted promotion of his own works and the magazines in which they run. Characters will notably point out a release of an another Adachi title or Ko will make a note about something that's happened in relation to it being controlled by the manga artist. What's easily the most obvious of such instances is with a new character who comes in at the beginning of the second volume and who repeatedly states: "I'm an important character," as he emphasizes the importance of making sure he has a proper introduction.
The story progresses along with the lives of the characters as they work part time jobs, attend school and most importantly, play baseball. Ko finally joins a baseball team but in strategic fashion by his friends, sits second string as he hides how skilled at the game he actually is. Aoba continues to catch the eye of all who see her for her drive and talent, while young Momiji brightens every page she's on with astute childlike statements and general adorableness. Sometimes it all starts feeling a little too everyday again, Adachi's flat-lined characters and their casual behavior lacking much excitement factor to keep you reading a bricks' thickness worth of manga. But the author knows what he's doing and just when it feels like you may not care enough about characters who sometimes don't seem to care enough themselves, Ko being the greatest offender of this, you're struck with a moment of pure gut-punching emotion that reminds you just how fleshed out each and every one of these characters really is. There's also an engaging amount of suspense building towards their first competitive baseball games to see how everyone's plans and stratagems work out and where the future in this lies for the proficient but impassive, Ko, and the admirably skilled and devoted, Aoba.
Continuing a recent trend of omnibus editions, expect a great value for what you pay with Cross Game as $19.99/US (though a notably more steep $27.00/CAN) will get you over 600 pages of manga. It's a well put together book so that even the hefty page count doesn't hamper the reading experience in terms of the book being too heavy or the pages hard to turn. Suffice to say it might take up a bit more room in your bag than you're used to though. Viz's work on the translation and lettering garners no reason for complaint, a smooth and easy on the eyes experience that's as clean and consistent as the story it adapts, including the replacing of sound effects with English equivalents that's done in a manner both neat and effective.
Cross Game breathes new life into the genre of sports-related manga for English-speaking audiences. It steers clear of the over-explanations of sport technicalities, the wailing dramatics of versus battles and the flying sweat and blood, all of which have their own place in other series, but are proven unnecessary here as the story thrives so well on the backs of its characters' lives and personalities instead. The always underlying sadness from early events keeps everything emotionally engaging while the love-hate-indifference relationship between Ko and Aoba proves a nice change from the usual girl-boy interactions of manga as well. The story's nuances may prove a little trying but Adachi easily proves himself capable of hooking a reader for all 600 pages and everything about his work here is nothing short of effective storytelling. For what it is so far, Cross Game is a compelling coming of age story easily recommended.
Overall : A-
Story : A
Art : B
+ Refreshingly subtle reactions framing compelling personalities and strong multi-angle storytelling about believable characters; great value in omnibus format
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