Ink & Paint V: Cross Game, by Mitsuru Adachi

It’s only natural that  Koh Kitamura and Wakaba Tsukishima would get together. They were born at the same hospital on the same day. Their families live just down the road from each other. Koh’s father owns a sporting-goods store, and Wakaba’s family runs a batting cage and coffee shop.

On top of that, Wakaba has a dream that Koh will play in the Koshien, the national high-school baseball championship. The only trouble is, Koh doesn’t particularly like baseball, though he’s an ace hitter in the batting cage and has a natural flair for pitching.  Wakaba knows Koh could be the best pitcher in Japan, if he’d just put his mind to it.

Life has a way of throwing us curve balls. Tragedy strikes, and Koh decides he must make Wakaba’s dream come true, no matter what the cost. It’s not going to be easy. He’s got to realize his potential as a ballplayer, and a lot of people want to make sure that never happens. Fortunately, Koh has some talented allies, including Wakaba’s baseball-prodigy kid sister, a tough-guy catcher with a keen eye for the game, and an old geezer of a coach who might not be as washed-up as everybody thinks.

I’m not a huge baseball fan, nor am I an aficionado of sports manga. So, what was it about Cross Game that caught my eye?

1. Powerful simplicity – Unlike a lot of artists who rely on puppy-dog eyes and over-the-top distortion, Mitsuru Adachi conveys a ton of emotion with very simple character designs. He can dish out the detail, particularly in the baseball action scenes and landscapes, but it was his restraint that really struck me. Slight shifts in posture, the curve of a mouth, the angle of a glance–Adachi’s pictures really are worth a thousand words.

2. Strong moral themes – Perseverance in the face of opposition, fair play, hard work, respect, accountability, dealing with sorrow and suffering, and, of course, the rewards of teamwork. Characters stand up courageously against injustice and corruption. Good is rewarded, but not always right away, and evil gets its just desserts in time. Self-sacrifice is also a huge theme in Cross Game. Several characters put their own ambitions on the shelf to advance the dreams of their friends and loved ones. It ties in nicely with the baseball theme–the “sacrifice fly” is a standard tactic in which a batter hits into an out to move base-runners forward, and it’s an apt metaphor for much of what happens in Cross Game.

3. Low key humor – Like the artwork, the humor in Cross Game is usually very simple, but it always seems to be spot-on. When I laughed, which was fairly often, despite some of the very serious issues mingled in with the sports, I laughed big. Adachi regularly breaks the fourth wall in a variety of ways for a chuckle, from a supporting character who complains he’s not getting enough face time, to character debates on Adachi’s shortfalls as a cartoonist, to occasional cameo appearances within the story by the artist. Fun stuff.

4. Likable characters – Koh and his friends aren’t saints, but they’re good people, the sort of kids you wish there would have been more of in your high school or neighborhood. They’re loyal, and they look out for each other. They go out of their way to help people in trouble. Most of all, they don’t take themselves too seriously.

I’d rate this manga at a low PG-13 for some isolated profanity (mostly when characters are really upset) and a couple of gratuitous underwear shots, likely thrown in as fan-service for the teenage boys who are the target audience for this comic. If they’ve been to the beach, they’ve seen a lot worse. Cross Game is also available as an anime, but I’m not sure if there’s even a English-subtitled version out yet.

I haven’t been able to find Cross Game in the manga section of my local chain bookstores, though a search on Barnes & Noble.com came up with another Adachi manga, Short Program. Scanned digests of Cross Game in English are available at www.onemanga.com, but if you like it, and can find it, please support the artist by purchasing a hard copy.

UPDATE: 25 May 10: For those who prefer their animation in color and in motion, the Cross Game anime is now available via online stream from Viz Media. Subtitled, 6 episodes online at this time, more added periodically. All 50 episodes online now.

UPDATE: 5 Aug 10: Due to the recent industry crackdown on fan-translated manga scans, OneManga,com and other similar aggregators have pretty much shut down. Until such time as the publisher sees fit to produce and distribute an English language translation of Cross Game, U.S. readers will have to be content with the anime version. Too bad. Traditional publishers once again fail to leverage modern technology, preferring to persecute the people who know how to use it rather than use that talent to bring their product into the 21st Century. The only winners here are the lawyers.  The situation has improved. See below.

UPDATE: 24 Jul 11: Hooray! VizMedia is now selling English-translated manga online, including Cross Game. You can check out a free preview of the first chapter of Volume 1 here. Or, you can buy Volume 1 in its entirety here. Chalk one up for the power of market economics. Though my previous comments regarding the anime may have seemed less than enthusiastic, it’s quite good. VizMedia is streaming all 50 episodes for free at http://www.vizanime.com/cross-game.

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