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Cross Game Retrospective

February 19, 2010 1 comment

Cross Game, the most recent series by renowned mangaka Mitsuru Adachi (Touch, Rough, H2) has finally come to a close. Beginning in Shonen Sunday in September 2005, it has entertained readers for nearly five years, and with a breathtaking climax that does justice to the quality of the entirety of the 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 series’ realism.

Similarly, the writing is true to life. On the diamond, Cross Game accurately portrays the duality of Japanese youth baseball, combining the professionalism of self-imposed pressure to strive for Koshien 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 quality shonen romantic comedies like Suzuka put the 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, characters with which the reader can relate.

As a visual piece, the art style is appropriate for the tone of the story. Each character design is 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:

Touch

H2

Cross Game

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, requiring no particular love for or interest in the sport. The characters are diverse, the story is compelling, the art is enriching, but above all, the cohesive work is brilliant. Cross Game has long been well-received, even winning the 54th Shogakukan Manga Award for shonen, and it will continue to receive far more lofty praise than a review on a blog, but nonetheless, I offer my personal recommendation:

I read a huge amount of manga, some out of self-appointed obligation but most out of enjoyment. That enjoyment varies, but even the most amazing chapters of my favorite series rarely elicit more than a smile and a good mood from me.

Chapter 168 of Cross Game froze me in my seat, sent chills down my spine, and left me with an impression I still feel three weeks after reading.

I hope you read it, and I hope you feel the same.

Medaka Box Steadily Improving

February 4, 2010 Leave a comment

After uninspiring beginnings which have placed it in danger of cancellation for months, Medaka Box is finally starting to find some direction in its plot and character development.

The series follows first-year student Medaka Kurokami (pictured, right), the newly-elected student council president, who is impossibly near-perfect in every area, including academics, athletics, and looks. She sets up a suggestion box in hopes of helping students in need and improving the school. She is joined by her childhood friend, the comparatively normal Zenkichi Hitoyoshi (pictured, left), who does not wish to join the student council, but does want to stay close to Medaka.

The problem with Medaka Box has never been the characters. Medaka complements her excellent mental and physical traits with a strong personality, which generally presents itself in humorous ways. One recurring scenario is for her to stand immediately behind someone and exactly mimic their pose (example). Zenkichi is the closest the series has to a comedic straight man, and is the only character with which the audience has a chance to relate. The secondary characters are all diverse and interesting, though some of their traits feel forced, as though the author is trying to make each new introduction live up to the absurdity of Medaka.

Instead, the problem Medaka Box faced upon its debut was the similarity of its plot template to existing series. The core concept of Medaka, that a small group undertakes tasks to assist whoever asks, was already shared by two currently-running series in the same magazine: Gintama and Sket Dance. Granted, there are some notable differences; Gintama mostly uses this format as a device to launch other, more involved plots (whether gag or serious), and Sket Dance splits the focus of its absurd humor between the three main characters, unlike Medaka Box, in which most of the focus is on Medaka herself. Still, the comparisons (especially between Medaka and Sket Dance) are apt, and they gave Medaka a rehashed feel in its early chapters.

Recently, though, Medaka Box has moved away from its original short-form gag stories and has introduced an overarching plot. The story currently borrows less from the specific Gintama– or Sket Dance-like formula, and has broadened its style to more typical shonen action. Most importantly, the spotlight once monopolized by Medaka is now being shared by Zenkichi and the rest of the student council, and by no coincidence, fan interest in Medaka Box is growing. In particular, Zenkichi is proving to be essential to the quality of the series. In this setting of absurd people with ridiculous abilities, the most interesting character is undoubtedly Zenkichi, who struggles to overcome his normalcy and remain by Medaka’s side. His recent battle, which began in chapter 33, has been the best instance of character development the series has offered to date. It will be difficult but critical for the author to continue to expand upon someone designed as an antithesis to the main character.

Furthermore, the author will be operating under pressure to improve. Medaka Box entered the bottom 5 for the first time in WSJ Issue 35, 2009 (July 27), and has since never been out of the bottom 5 for two consecutive weeks. (Explanation of the “bottom 5” now in the Terminology section of the About page.) It’s receiving some support from volume sales (Volume 2 sold over 82,000 volumes in its first two weeks), and it is receiving a drama CD adaptation, but, behind Neko Wappa!, is one of the series most eligible for cancellation. Given the eight-week delay between chapters and their placement in the table of contents, it’s possible that Medaka could soon escape the bottom 5, but it will need to finish this arc strongly to have any chance of long-term survival.

Medaka debuted in Weekly Shonen Jump Issue 24, 2009 (May 18). The series is written by Nisio Isin, author of the Monogatari light novel series, of which Bakemonogatari has already received an anime adaptation, and the Katanagatari samurai epic, whose anime adaptation is currently airing. Isin is not new to manga, having previously worked with renowned manga artist Takeshi Obata (Hikaru no Go, Death Note) on Uro-oboe Uroboros, a 2008 one-shot in Weekly Shonen Jump. Medaka is drawn by artist Akira Akatsuki, previously known for the brief 2007 WSJ series Contractor M&Y.

Sket Dance Wins Shogakukan Award

January 24, 2010 Leave a comment

Sket Dance, a Weekly Shonen Jump comedy series by Shinohara Kenta, has won the 55th Shogakukan Manga Award in the Shonen category for the year 2009. Sket Dance follows the adventures of the “Sket-Dan,” a small group dedicated to helping students and staff of their school. The character traits and interplay between the group members meshes well with strong comedy writing, which is sometimes appropriately counterbalanced with heartfelt story arcs. Sket Dance has been running in Jump since 2007 but has yet to receive similar recognition from Western audiences as other Jump series, or indeed series in rival magazines. Fan scanlations for the series have fallen behind, and at the time of writing, Sket Dance doesn’t even have a page on Wikipedia.

That said, receiving such a prestigious award is a fantastic honor for the series and could be the sign of a surge in relevance in the next couple years. Volume 11 of Sket Dance debuted at #11 on the Weekly Oricon charts with over 100,000 units sold. Sket Dance also recently received a drama CD, which is typically intended as a precursor to an anime adaptation. Two other Jump series, Bakuman and Nurarihyon no Mago, already have anime adaptations in development, while Toriko received a short OVA for Jump Festa; it would not be surprising if more anime announcements were forthcoming, and Sket Dance would certainly be deserving of consideration. Furthermore, recently-formed scanlation group Iconoclast has announced Sket Dance as its first project.

Sket Dance is now in elite company as only the eighth Jump series to receive this particular award from Shogakukan, the publisher of major magazine rival Weekly Shonen Sunday. The other seven series (and the year they won the award): Play Ball (1976, tie), Dr. Slump (1981), Ginga: Nagareboshi Gin (1986), YuYu Hakusho (1993), Slam Dunk (1994), Hikaru no Go (1999, tie), and Bleach (2004).

Source: Shogakukan, Oricon