Reviewby Carl Kimlinger,
Episodes 39-50 Streaming
The summer tournament is finally underway. For Ko and his longtime Seishu teammates, it's their last chance to get to Koshien, the holy ground of high-school baseball. It'll be a hard battle, especially since they'll have to get through Ryuou, the school that ended their Koshien dreams the year before. In the meantime Akane's health begins to deteriorate, putting extra pressure on the team—particularly Akaishi—while Ko and Aoba must at last have a reckoning with their own feelings. Regardless of the outcome, it'll be a summer to remember.
The feel-good cliché is that the journey is what's important. Let's be honest. That's a load of crap. Everyone knows the destination matters—a lot. A good ending can redeem a bad series and push a good one towards greatness. A bad ending nearly always ruins a series, even the best of them. Cross Game's ending is a good one. Very good.
The end of Cross Game is of course a baseball game. It's a fine game, the kind of dryly funny, unpredictable match that the series is known for. But that's hardly all it is. It's also a crossroads, a place where Cross Game's characters and ongoing relationships meet and take a turn towards their final destinations. Akane fights for her life and shifts ever so slightly the direction of her affections. Ko gives Akaishi a gentle push to be less selfless. Azuma picks up some of Akaishi's selflessness and moves further yet from his days as a baseball robot. Azuma's flighty older brother reaches the final punch-line of his running joke of a love life, Aoba's amorous cousin Mizuki makes a sort of peace with his own unrequited feelings, and even bratty one-time manager/idol Risa can be spotted taking another step towards full-blown baseball fandom. This isn't just some game; it's a slice of life, in the best, most profound sense of the term: broad, varied, and poignant.
At its heart, though, dominating all else, are Ko and Aoba. Contrary, dishonest, and forever haunted by the shadow of the girl they both loved and lost, they've long been the emotional backbone of the series, and the nature and fate of their relationship is the big open question going into the final episodes. The answer comes in the very last episode, as Aoba realizes during the final heat of the game that Ko's biggest lie is his claim that he's a liar. It seems a simple thing, but coupled with Ko's answer to a question asked by Aoba several episodes previous, it changes everything. Suddenly earlier events take on entirely new meanings. The shift in Akane's affections, for instance, or Ko telling Akaishi to stop handing everything over to him. The full import of her realization takes just a second to hit, but when it does it hits with all the force of their fifty episodes of shared experience. It isn't just a good or even an excellent scene; it's a great one. It makes rewatching what came before a virtue, and watching what follows an unparalleled pleasure. It is, in short, the opening round of the most satisfying final (half) episode in recent memory.
Praising the ending isn't meant to belittle the rest. The journey has its charms too. In fact, it's a delight from start to finish, filled with laconic humor and terse emotional insights, with keenly drawn characters and a quiet appreciation for the everyday joys of ordinary life. The cast's rapport is good, particularly as regards Ko and Aoba, whose verbal sparring is all tart retorts and easy chemistry broken by the occasional glimpse of the emotional icebergs—the biggest and gnarliest being Wakaba—that lie beneath the smooth surface of their comfortable relationship. Never has the "bickering couple" been done better. We've grown to love and care for these characters, all of them, much the way they love and care for each other, and it's one of the series' great pleasures merely to spend time in their company.
And let's not forget the baseball. The summer tournament supplies baseball matches in great quantities, and even the inconsequential ones are quickly paced and spiked with little surprises. The important ones are downright engrossing. Its sports action may be overshadowed by its personal and emotional content, but Cross Game is still a show best watched with a baseball in hand.
Mitsuru Adachi loves baseball, and it shows. Cross Game never looks better than when it's in the midst of a game. Pitching, fielding, and running motions are carefully researched and illustrated, and baseball poses are drawn for maximum (but still naturalistic) cool. Uniforms are lovingly designed, equipment is lovingly detailed, and each play lovingly staged. Honestly the series' animation, even at the height of a game, isn't anything to be proud of, but its use of unconventional editing, be it fragmented, elliptical, or even intellectual, to communicate the impact of in-game events is. As is its canny musical escalation and driving use of Kotaro Nakagawa's distinctive score. The character designs are simple, even by Adachi's minimalist standards, the crowd shots are some of the worst ever drawn (really, did the animators get their kids to draw those faces?), and the cloud-pans are getting really old, but what else is new? If you've gotten this far into the series, you've already come to terms with its stylistic shortcomings. And thankfully, the worst of them—i.e. the ones that worked counter to Adachi's customary understatement—have been curbed.
I first encountered Mitsuru Adachi via Touch. The series was one of the first to open my eyes to anime's potential and I credit it, along with Kare Kano and Berserk, with transforming me from a casual fan to a heavy-duty fanatic. To this day I rank it among anime's stone-cold masterpieces. I mention this so as to put the following in its proper context: By the end of these episodes I wasn't comparing Cross Game to Touch any more. I wasn't lining Ko up next to Tatsuya, I wasn't weighing Osamu Sekita against Hiroko Tokita, I wasn't even feeling nostalgia. I was just watching Cross Game. From me, there is no higher praise.
Overall (sub) : A
Story : A
Animation : B
Art : B
Music : B+
+ A beautiful, heartfelt end to a beautiful, heartfelt series; wholly satisfying.
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