Reviewby Carlo Santos, Feb 24th 2012
Ko Kitamura is the ace pitcher of Seishu High School, and like any young baseball player, he dreams of reaching the Koshien national championships. It's a dream that was also shared by Ko's childhood sweetheart Wakaba Tsukishima, who tragically passed away in fifth grade. The past comes back to haunt Ko when he meets his new neighbor Akane, who looks exactly like a teenaged Wakaba. Gradually, Ko and Akane get to know each other, wondering where this friendship is headed ... while Ko's best friend Akaishi, who also had a crush on Wakaba, watches history repeat itself from the sidelines. Meanwhile, Aoba Tsukishima—a skillful pitcher in her own right and Ko's biggest critic—gets injured while helping the Seishu boys train on the field. When the team's reticent star hitter Azuma comes to Aoba's aid, a new relationship starts to blossom.
Cross Game is supposed to be a baseball manga, right? Well, you wouldn't think it from Volume 6 (a bundling of Japanese volumes 12 and 13), which comes loaded with youthful slice-of-life moments but makes only occasional visits to the baseball diamond. Yet therein lies the charm of this series, where growing up, making friends, and falling in love are as much a part of the high school experience as being on the sports team and winning games. You know, just like real life. Even without superhuman feats of pitching or intense play-by-play action, this story finds plenty of ways to grab one's attention.
Naturally, the budding relationship between Ko and Akane emerges as the main plot thread here. Akane's arrival in the previous volume may have seemed like a gimmicky cop-out at first, but as the details about her personality are filled in—talented artist, does part-time work, generally friendly to everyone—we start to see her as her own person and not just a mysterious Wakaba clone. What makes it real stroke of brilliance, though, is that this is exactly what happens in Ko's mind as well: he may have viewed Akane on a superficial level at first, but the subtle building-up of her character eventually makes the pairing between her and Ko legitimate. There is no exact magical moment when one starts rooting for the couple; rather, it's the entire growth process that makes it work. While Ko may still hold a torch for the memory of Wakaba, he's moved on as a young man and is able to take an interest in someone new.
But that storyline alone would soon grow tiresome, and so it's the secondary relationships that really fill this volume out. Long-suffering third wheel Akaishi really takes on the role of sympathetic figure here, as he must once again watch his best friend win over the girl that he likes. Thankfully, the other subplots are a little more lighthearted: in the "most unlikely couple" department, we have Azuma, the team's best slugger, being drawn to Aoba, their best batting-practice pitcher, after he inadvertently sends her to the emergency room. It's one of those sweet-mystery-of-life moments, where a freak accident leads to a charming and unexpected relationship. There's even time to bring up a longstanding "joke" couple and send it in a fresh direction: Azuma's big brother, still pining after eldest Tsukishima sister Ichiyo, is re-energized as a comic relief character who constantly cheers on the Seishu team—all because Ichiyo said she would marry him if Seishu got to Koshien.
With all these romantic ups and downs, and the fact that Volume 6 takes place mostly in the offseason, there isn't much room for eye-catching sports action. Some deftly drawn highlights from other schools' games help to stave off the baseball withdrawal symptoms—a fluid pitching motion here, a dramatic crack of the bat there—but otherwise, there aren't very many dynamic visuals. Instead, Mitsuru Adachi's artistry is at its most showy during establishing landscape shots; as the chapters progress, we see a progression from winter to spring to just-before-the-start-of-summer. While most of these illustrations are photo-referenced, the delicate outlining and shading gives every panel a hand-drawn touch. Adachi also proves to be skillful in areas that demand simplicity: the character designs can be easily expressed in just a few strokes, and while some of their gestures border on slapstick gag humor, the gentle lines help to soften the look. The page layouts, which typically consist of one rectangle after another, also demonstrate how the most simple approach can be the best approach in making a story work.
Although Cross Game's characters often find themselves dealing with complex emotions, the dialogue remains mercifully brief. Nobody goes around making grand speeches about their feelings, internal monologues don't trail on and on for several panels, and Ko's friends don't make a big deal out of Every Little Thing he does with Akane. People talk to each other like regular suburban folks, which is what makes the characters so approachable. This translation not only brings out that simple style of speech, but also handles wordplay carefully. In the case of highly elaborate puns, the Japanese words and the English are written into the script, or otherwise explained as a marginal footnote. Simpler gags are just fully translated into English, so as not to interfere with the flow of the writing. Japanese text in the artwork is left alone if it's a minor detail like an advertisement, although signs that point out particular locations—like the Clover café, or Seishu High School—are replaced with appropriate text in English. Sound effects are also edited out and replaced with English equivalents, usually in bold, simple fonts that try to blend in with the artwork.
Volume 6 of Cross Game steps up to one of the great storytelling challenges: to remain an interesting sports series even though the main characters don't spend a single minute actually playing the sport (outside of practice sessions). These pages show that it can be done, by having the characters interact in ways that don't require a baseball field. They make new friends or get to know existing ones better; they consider the possibilities of falling in love; even those who may have seemed unlikable or annoying at first prove their worth after all. This multi-dimensional portrayal—where there's more to life than just playing baseball, and more to a baseball player than just wanting to win—is what makes the series satisfying on every level. Okay, so maybe it falls a little short on the artistic level, what with so little actual baseball being played. But the readers who are pulled into the lives of Ko, Aoba, and friends will find plenty enough to make up for it.
Overall : B+
Story : B
Art : A-
+ A storyline full of various intertwining relationships, and a simple yet appealing art style, make this the ideal slice-of-life series.
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