Cross Game is a 17 volume manga than ran in Weekly Shonen Sunday from 2005-2010. It advertises itself as a sports manga, but the second volume 1 ends, you realize that truly, it’s a psychological Slice of Life romance that happens to have baseball in it.
I wouldn’t say I’m a sports anime professional. I’ve seen Haikyuu, 15 episodes of Hajime no Ippo and half of Shokugeki no Souma. All of which were fantastic, by the way. But they all had one thing in common. They existed solely to hype up the audience. Cross Game, on the other hand, deliberately undercuts the hype of some moments that would be insanely exciting in something like Haikyuu. There is a plot point throughout the series revolving around a certain achievement that, if accomplished, would be the coolest shit ever. It spends about 16 of it’s volumes hyping up this one event, only for it to be somewhat underplayed when it actually happens. Why? So it could properly show the effects on it for the characters and the main romance, rather than how cool it was for the game.
Not to say that the baseball matches in Cross Game aren’t any good. From what I understand, they are rather realistic. A lot of character traits are portrayed through these matches, and it’s seriously impressive how much happens in the short amount of time the games receive.
The entire first volume of Cross Game is an extended prologue to the series, introducing all the characters’ motivations for playing baseball, and why they act the way they do. I could not recommend more that you read this prologue without knowing basically any information on it. Don't worry, I don't spoil anything here.
The characters in Cross Game have the appeal of being fully realized tropes. Cross Game takes anime character archetypes (Tsundere, laid back hero, obsessed fat friend, “girl that looks exactly like the one from my childhood”, etc) and takes them to their realistic extremes. Not something like Fate Stay Night, where the sociological implications of these archetypes are explored to the point where it seems like everyone is crazy. But rather, why they act this way. I’ll put it this way. Harem anime from the early 2000s created character archetypes. Fate Stay Night and Toradora deconstructed those tropes to show how fucked up these people would be in the real world. Cross Game reconstructs the original tropes, keeping in mind the criticisms made by F/SN and Toradora, while still being similar to the original character. It even nails why characters fall in love with other characters, instead of being useless throw away harem reasons.
Cross Game also handles grief exceptionally well. At some point in the series, one of the major characters dies. Their death has insanely large effects on the rest of the series, but doesn’t feel at all forced. It’s a beautiful exploration of how people react to death, and is one of the strongest parts about the series.
The side characters are insanely well developed. Two in particular, Akaishi and Azuma, blew my mind with how well characterized and thought out they were for side characters. I can honestly say that the characters in this series are up there with the best.
Cross Game also has more subtly in it’s writing and dialogue than most shonen. It can explore a wide variety of ideas and emotions with just pictures or short phrases. The nuanced writing in Cross Game is subtle enough for critics to think about, but still somewhat obvious for most people, and not important enough that people who don’t want to think about it will be confused.
Cross Game is also one of the most consistent stories I’ve ever read. It’s true that Our Happy Time and FLCL are more consistent in their quality. But those are tiny compared to Cross Game. Cross Game is 170 chapters and ran for 5 YEARS! And it still keeps the same quality throughout the whole thing. While this does mean it doesn’t have a truly stand out arc, it also doesn’t have a weak chapter in it.
My biggest problem with Cross Game is that the early chapters have a serious case of same face. Everyone looks pretty similar for a little while, and it takes a few volumes to get into the hang of things. Though, by the end, I fell in love with the character designs.
Cross Game is a triumph. It’s a simple story, but is so fantastically written that it’s still stunning and poignant. I hesitate to say that anything else I’ve read is like Cross Game. It’s not really a sports manga at all. It’s calm, relaxing, and a great coming of age story. Whatever it is, I was insanely impressed. It gets a 9.25/10 from me.