Reviewby Carlo Santos, Aug 5th 2011
In his second year of high school, Ko Kitamura has taken his rightful place as the ace pitcher of the Seishu High baseball team. But Ko's got plenty on his mind aside from just guiding the team to a national championship. First there's Aoba Tsukishima, the little sister of Ko's onetime childhood sweetheart and now a centerfielder/pitcher who's talented enough to play with the boys' squad. Will she and Ko ever get along? Then there's the new boy in class, Asami Mizuki, who feels absolutely no guilt about being attracted to Aoba despite the two of them being first cousins. With all these issues in Ko's life, it's a wonder he can stay focused enough for the upcoming regional tournament.
Mitsuru Adachi accomplishes nothing new in Volume 4 of Cross Game. Yet in that lack of newness, there is still plenty to learn, like watching a veteran pitcher strike out batters with the same repertoire he's used for years and years. As usual, the series slides effortlessly between calm slices of life and fired-up baseball action, sometimes even in the space of a single chapter. Rarely does the storyline stumble, or hit a wall, or try to create false drama where none exists. Instead, everything about Cross Game proceeds in a smooth, flowing motion—and that's what keeps readers hooked.
This volume begins by stirring the friends-and-family pot, with newcomer Mizuki entering Ko's circle of peers. It's a testament to Adachi's creative talent that even this minor character is so quickly fleshed out: we learn that Mizuki is worldly and confident, the son of a mountaineer, and—most importantly—has an eye for his attractive younger cousin. That's when the real fun begins: Aoba has to dress more modestly around the house due to Mizuki being around, the Ko-is-dating-Aoba ruse gets busted ("You mean she was single this whole time?!"), and most amusingly, Mizuki checks up on whether it's legal for first cousins to marry. Somehow, even the most mundane aspects of suburban life are made entertaining when presented as humorous asides.
Not all of Adachi's humor works, however; he still gives in too easily to the fourth-wall gags about not getting his manga pages turned in on time and sometimes dredges up throwaway characters just to point and laugh at them. It's like having an embarrassing uncle who makes dumb, old-fashioned jokes—you just chuckle nervously and try to move on to the next topic as quickly as possible.
That next topic, of course, is baseball. However, sports-minded readers will need to be patient for about 150 pages, because that's about how long it takes for Adachi to dwell on Ko's ever-evolving daily life, and get those occasional dumb jokes out of the way. But patience is eventually rewarded, with the back half of this volume being a showcase of dynamic plays and clever moves as the Seishu team powers its way through the tournament's early rounds. While Ko might be rightfully criticized for being portrayed as some kind of baseball Superman—it seems he wins 80% of his matchups just by throwing really hard—the action does become more engaging once he faces worthy opponents, like the Ryuou High team at the end of this volume. It's the ideal spot for a cliffhanger, with tough opposition and a close 1-0 game to keep things interesting.
Adachi's simple yet confident artwork is also crucial in bringing out the essence of baseball, as it is in just about every work he's ever done. Not a single panel or line is wasted during in-game scenes, and the players' explosive motions are always captured in perfect freeze-frame. (This is where years of careful anatomical study eventually pays off.) Speedlines are also used to convey a sense of motion, but ultimately, it's that ability to "stop time" at a key point—like a pitcher's release, or a bat making contact with the ball—that gives this series its distinct visual style. Scenes of day-to-day life aren't quite as striking, but again Adachi knows exactly how to use his sparse style to his advantage: a few curved lines might be all that's needed to express a certain character's feelings, and a few panels of silence might say more than any amount of dialogue. Indeed, some of the finest artistic moments come during moments of stillness, where an extra page or two of establishing the scene makes all the difference.
With the artist so adept at using silence and sparseness to his advantage, it's no surprise that the characters in this series are not the talkative type. The dialogue is almost haiku-like in its simplicity, with the only big outbursts typically being when Ko and Aoba argue with each other (which of course is terribly endearing, and makes everyone wish those two would just hurry up and admit they like each other). Then again, in a world where every other manga character is intent on rambling about their feelings or declaring some grand purpose to the world, it's refreshing to have a cast of characters that can keep some of their thoughts to themselves. The result is a simple, matter-of-fact script that's just as understated as the art. Ironically, however, that understated art causes the translated sound effects to stand out more: every crack of the bat and roar of the crowd is now very clearly rendered in English, which is a little bit distracting from Adachi's linework.
This volume of Cross Game does all the big things right, from introducing a new character to kicking off another baseball tournament. But there are so many little things that are worthy of praise as well: a moment of sweetness where Ko proves that he still holds a torch for his childhood sweetheart Wakaba; an amusing interlude at the Tsukishima family café where Ko tries to avoid Aoba's notorious cooking; a touch of baseball espionage between Seishu and their opponents that ends up backfiring. The big plot points, the little flourishes in between, and the distinctive artwork sprinkled on top all add up to a deeply satsifying story. So maybe it takes almost half the book for the baseball action to start. So maybe Adachi, in his old age, throws in a few failed gags. A few missteps here and there are a small price to pay for this wonderful journey of youth.
Overall : B
Story : B-
Art : A-
+ Moves through slice-of-life, light romance, comedy, and sports genres with equal grace as it continues to weave its inspirational tale.
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