Ever since his 1980s classic Touch, shonen luminary Adachi Mitsuru has been renowned for his writing style, which seamlessly blends sports, slice of life, and romance. While he has applied his formula to numerous series over the years, including Rough and H2, no manga captures the essence of his unique genre as wonderfully as Cross Game. Beginning in Shonen Sunday in September 2005, Cross Game entertained readers for nearly five years, earning critical acclaim such as the 54th Shogakukan Manga Award for shonen along the way. With a superb cast of characters, a moving story, and a breathtaking climax that does justice to the quality of the entire work, it belongs in any recommended reading list.
Cross Game follows Kitamura Kou, the son of a sports equipment store owner, a pleasant, somewhat sarcastic boy with only enough of an interest in sports to push sales for his family’s shop. Most of the story and character development is driven by the relationship between Kou and the sisters of the Tsukishima family, primarily the middle two sisters, Wakaba and Aoba. Kou and Wakaba were born the same day in the same hospital, and have shared a close relationship since birth, while Aoba is jealous of the attention her older sister gives to Kou. Aoba is a naturally talented pitcher, and Kou, with an increasing interest in baseball, uses her as the inspiration after which he models his pitching form. These scenarios, coupled with a momentous event early in the series, form the foundation of the fascinating relationship between Kou and Aoba, which itself is the focal point of Cross Game.
That focus on character relationships is complemented by Adachi’s ability to give his characters a familiar humanity. The current shonen landscape is overwhelmed by unrealistic characters defined almost entirely by one trait each. Natsu (Fairy Tail) is indomitable. Sasuke (Naruto) seeks revenge. Some series even feature an entire cast of one-note characters; Mahou Sensei Negima! is an enjoyable series, but the members of Class 3-A are hardly shining examples of character depth or development. By contrast, the cast of Cross Game features realistic complexity, with entirely ordinary traits used tastefully. Senda is showy, awkward, insecure, yet positive. Azuma is independent, determined, and driven – but not ruled – by his past. All are human traits, and all are displayed in balance with each other to further reinforce the realism of the series.
Similarly, the writing is true to life. On the diamond, Cross Game accurately portrays the duality of Japanese youth baseball; the professionalism of self-imposed pressure to strive for Koshien is combined with enough mistakes and immaturity to remind the reader that despite any measure of success, the protagonists are still a group of kids. Unlike other sports series such as Prince of Tennis, which announced the dominance of its stars too early and robbed the series of any building anticipation, Cross Game uncovers talent slowly and subtly. Kou’s pitching ability grows throughout the course of the series, and that growth is largely dependent upon those around him, particularly Aoba.
Meanwhile, the romantic comedy elements of the series are intentionally faint. Even good shonen romantic comedies like Suzuka put characters’ feelings on full display, leaving nothing to the imagination, and depend heavily upon fan-service. By contrast, Cross Game credits the intelligence of its audience with characters authentically secretive about their romantic interests, with whom the reader can relate.
As a visual piece, the art style is appropriate for the tone of the story. Character designs are clean and suitable to each personality, if perhaps somewhat familiar. After all, when presented with a picture from one of his many series, even an avid Adachi fan would be forgiven for confusing one character with another:
That said, Adachi deserves as much credit for his art as for his writing. The foreground action is supported by detailed backgrounds evoking a calm suburban Japan. Scenes are also carefully interspersed with views of the landscape or wordless crowd reaction, speaking volumes through art alone. In fact, Cross Game was used in a 2007 academic presentation to the International Research Society for Children’s Literature as an example of silent narrative. Many series have both excellent art and writing, but few series feature art and writing that complement each other so perfectly.
Like respected predecessors Slam Dunk or Hikaru no Go, Cross Game transcends its genre. It is not just an excellent baseball series, but an excellent series in general, requiring no particular love for its relevant sport. The characters are diverse, the story is compelling, the art is enriching, but above all, the cohesive work is brilliant. By refining the core elements of Touch over the years, Adachi has surpassed himself and written his masterpiece. From its lighthearted beginnings to its heartwarming finale, Cross Game is a completely fulfilling reading experience.