Reviewby Theron Martin,
episodes 1-5 streaming
Fifth-graders Ko Kitamura and Wakaba Tsukishima are closely-linked: not only are they neighbors and from families with complementary businesses (the Kitamuras own a sporting goods store, the Tsukishimas operate the local batting facility and adjoining café), but they also share the same birthday and are on the verge of falling in love, much to the consternation of Wakaba's tomboy sister Aoba, who resents Ko for drawing Wakaba's attention away from her. Though Ko shows little interest in baseball beyond batting, Wakaba has high expectations for him, dreaming that he will one day pitch at Koshien, site of Japan's national high school baseball championships, and planning out their future together. But Fate has an unpleasant way of intervening, and one tragic summer day changes the lives of Ko, Aoba, and others forever.
Four years pass. Ko now approaches high school without ever having become more than a casual baseball player, while Aoba has become one of the most skilled and diligent members of the middle school's baseball team. Ko is not the only person touched by Wakaba's dream, however, and one other affected by it, who recognizes Ko's prodigious talent, convinces him to train seriously (and secretly) to become a pitcher in high school. Trouble looms on the high school baseball horizon, though, and Aoba still can't seem to tolerate Ko even though the rest of the Tsukishimas adore him.
At its beginning Cross Game seems to be a warm and charming tale about budding young love, one which only peripherally involves baseball and occasionally inserts some silly elements for a good laugh. There comes a moment at the end of the first episode, though, which simply and powerfully shows that there will be far more to this series than that – and no, it actually isn't the big tragedy, which does swiftly change the direction of the series and help define its ongoing plot. No, the most important moment actually comes after that, when Ko witnesses Akaishi, the character apparently being set up as the bully, crying over the tragic event and realizes that shedding tears is the one thing he has been unable to do so far but has most needed to do. Backed by a sad and gentle song, it is an especially poignant scene which embodies the soul of the series, the kind of moment which elevates a series from being merely a very good one to being a truly special one. Very rarely are anime series able to induce strong emotional reactions with their first episodes, but this one can, and rarely will an anime series sell itself better with its first episode than this one does.
After its powerhouse opener the series settles down a bit, and infuses in a bit more comedy, as it jumps the timeline forward four years to late-middle-school days, where the main story truly starts. Here the baseball element becomes more prominent, but unlike most sports series, it is not the entirety of the story. The presence of the one who was lost four years ago still lingers in both overt and more subtle touches, regularly remaining in the thoughts of the series' characters and occasionally even guiding their actions; in fact, in a sense the story is as much about the enduring legacy of the lost character as it is about anything else. The advancement of the timeline also shows how some people can change drastically as they mature while others remain the same; tough guy Akaishi now plays on the side of the angels, for instance, while Aoba seems to have become even more prickly towards Ko as time has passed. The opening credits (which also, curiously, show the lost character in a much older form – you'll have to watch well past the scope of the episodes reviewed here to learn what's up with that, though) and certain hints dropped so far suggest that Ko and Aoba will eventually hook up, but right now the journey towards that goal looks to be a long and interesting one indeed.
The greatest strengths of the series so far lie in its writing. Based fairly faithfully on a manga by Mitsuru Adachi, who has made a career mostly out of creating stories about the mixing of love and sports, it eschews most common anime conventions in favor of a sophisticated, carefully-crafted style which typically remains understated and often relies heavily on subtleties, thus requiring the audience to pay attention; for instance, it never highlights what is hanging on Ko's bedroom wall after the time jump but instead expects its audience to notice that it is still there and appreciate its significance, while on another occasion a simple action is all that is needed for one character to impress upon another that something phenomenally inappropriate has just been said. Although the storytelling does find a time and place for comedy – it can be very funny in some scenes, especially in one scene about a clothes thief getting caught – it normally takes an understated approach which moves the plot along gradually but surely without exaggerated bursts of drama, stock scenes, or descents into chibi foolishness. Though it features youths and is tame enough to carry a TV G rating (one character is very briefly shown in a bra, but it is hardly a provocative shot), this is a series that adults will appreciate quite well.
The cast of characters established so far is another highlight, as the series paints its characters as distinct, credible individuals devoid of most of the outlandishness and extremities of personality all too often seen in animation and certainly free of typical anime archetypes. Ko is a quiet, good-hearted-and good-natured type who gives the outward impression of laziness and may complain a lot, yet can be diligent and responsible when needed. Unlike so many other male leads, he does not freak out around girls. Aoba is an acerbic tomboy most commonly shown with a sour expression and few girlish inclinations, one who looks more natural in a baseball uniform than a skirt and who has not, so far, played out like the tsundere type which has been so common of late for this kind of character. Akaishi is interesting as the tough guy who has been changed and given a purpose by love, becoming more even-tempered than one might expect, while Senda is the requisite comic relief character, albeit one whose cluelessness and amusingly unfounded arrogance operates on the level which might easily be seen in any real middle or high school setting, and Momiji, the youngest of the four Tsukishima sisters, provides a convincing and natural burst of cute. Wakaba is the true find here, though, a heart-stealer whose vivaciousness and charm is not only infectious but also unstoppable and free of any moe taint. Her appeal and strength of personality is a force to be reckoned with.
Unfortunately the technical merits are not at the same standard as the writing. Crafted by Synergy SP, a studio more known for in-between work which has only previously taken the lead on Hayate the Combat Butler and the fourth season of Major, this is not a series which is going to win people over with its visuals. The lead characters and Wakaba have appealing enough looks, but beyond them the quality of the character designs degrades quickly, with some characters practically becoming caricatures and ridiculously-exaggerated and crudely-drawn overbites being common features of disposable bit players. The designs do make a notable effort to diversify the cast's look by having prominent heavy-set male characters (and there will later be a similar female character, too), do use strictly real Japanese hair colors, and the artistry and animation do show a good knowledge of correct baseball form, mechanics, and effective scene-staging, but the background art, coloring, and animation beyond the baseball aspects are nothing special. Don't expect much for facial expressiveness, either, as each character beyond Wakaba has one set default expression and rarely strays from that.
The musical score, contrarily, is one of the series' strengths. Kotaro Nakagawa, who has also done scores for series like Planetes and Code Geass, turns in quality work here with a light touch and much more understated effort, one which superbly captures the mood of the material. The maudlin song "Koi Kogarete Mita Yume” is a wonderful choice to play behind the tragic parts of the first episode, as it evokes a sense of loss and wistful remembrance which also fits perfectly as the series' closer. Opener “Summer Rain” is a solid but less remarkable number. Also well-used are the series' dramatic crescendos, which occasionally even get twisted for comedy purposes.
At the time of this writing Cross Game is only available in streaming form at Viz Media's video site, so, naturally, it is only available in subbed form. The subtitling job is a respectable one, but the Japanese dub suffers a bit because the actors make little or no effort to adjust the voices of their characters appropriately for the different ages at which they appear; Akaishi sounds just as deep-voiced at age 11 as he does at age 15, for instance, and that will not change as the series progresses and the years pass. The acting is otherwise pretty good, but that just seems lazy.
Western fans often find themselves turned off by sports anime because of the genre's routine stylistic elements and the necessity to appreciate the sport being played to be able to appreciate the anime. For those who fall into that category, this one might change your mind. This wonderful intersection of love, loss, and baseball (and a little comedy, too) is easily one of the most accessible and distinctive of all sports anime and has the potential to be one of the best. Its slower and more deliberate pacing may not suit some, but the series has too many other merits to ignore it just for that reason.
Overall (sub) : A-
Story : A
Animation : B-
Art : B-
Music : A-
+ Superb storytelling, free of most anime clichés, quality musical score.
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