So, what manga do I like? If you've been following my last few reviews, you'd get the feeling that I only read things that I don't like. That's not intentional. I'm a voracious reader, and I'm constantly trying out new titles that catch my eye. The problem is that not everything that catches my eye turns out to be gold. But, there is the occasional nugget which keeps me interested in reading manga over the long run. It's just that it's like the old saying, "you have to kiss a lot of frogs before you find a prince" (not that I'm romantically attracted to either frogs OR princes...)
One of my favorite authors is Mitsuru Adachi. He's been in the business since 1970, and has had a number of his titles turned into long-running TV anime series. A few shows have even gone into reruns recently on MX TV in Tokyo. The storylines tend to be fairly predictable - young kid (boy or girl) gets pulled reluctantly into some sport against their will, undergoes severe training, and emerges as one of the best players in Japan. Along the way there are rivals, love interests, and the occasional set back. During all of this, the main character maintains a fairly level head, and wins in the end through a combination of plain hard work and skill. There's at least one person in each of Adachi's stories that has a family member or close friend who's dies at some point, either a parent prior to the start of the story, or a sibling early on in the series. Coping with loss, overcoming hurdles, and friendship are all more important than is the competition of the sport du jour. Although, the sport is as important as life itself.
Adachi has written some fantasy, and stories about boxing, among other sports, but he keeps coming back to high school baseball. The title currently running in Shonen Sunday is "Cross Game".
Cross Game, by Mitsuru Adachi, Grade: A
Ko Kitamura is a young slacker who is friends of a family that own a baseball practice center. He's primarily close to one daughter, Wakaba, and always at odds with another, Aoba, because Aoba's jealous of the time Ko spends with Wakaba. Aoba's a star baseball pitcher forever fated to be thwarted by the Japanese rules that girls can't play on the boys' teams. Ko gets roped into joining the school's baseball club, and over time turns into a decent pitcher, which only makes Aoba like him less. Then, Wakaba dies trying to rescue someone swept up in a raging flood, and the tension between Ko and Aoba just gets worse. Only the desire to see their school's team make it into the playoffs allows them to get along together.
Adachi recycles his characters designs all the time. And, because he keeps telling high school baseball stories, one title pretty much looks like the next. However, his art style has gotten refined over the years, causing his older works to look pretty dated in comparison. For this reason, it's better to start out with Touch, and then progress through Slow Step, Rough, H2 and then Katsu, if you plan on checking out his entire body of work, before moving on to Cross Game.
What keeps bringing me back to Adachi is that the sports are just used as a backdrop for the telling of a character-driven story. Yes, he gets into the theory of the game, and he spends a lot of time with rival teams battling it out on the mound (or in the ring), but it's the unfolding drama between characters new and old that is his real focus. The characters grow and evolve from beginning to end. But at the same time, the story never turns into a soap opera, and the sports games complement the drama rather than eclipse it.
Adachi is a skilled artist, working with clean lines and a strong sense of pacing. Often, his stories will reach a resolution before the protagonists get to the final match of the sport, and it's left up to the reader as to whether they won or not, although at that point, winning is no longer all that important. He's capable of drawing great action scenes, so that a pitcher in the middle of a throw really does look like he's throwing a ball, rather than just sitting statically in mid-pose.
Summary: Adachi is one of my favorite artists, and Cross Game is his latest title, which is now also a TV anime. Cross Game is YABS (Yet Another Baseball Story), featuring a slacker that turns out to be a good pitcher, and the sister of his best friend who is even better at the game than he is. The art is good, the pacing is strong, and the game doesn't get in the way of the story. Highly recommended.