Before embarking on Cross Game I kept wondering how it might be any different to Major, that other baseball show I adore. And the answer is, in every single way. Major’s Goro Honda is a dull-brained baseball maniac while Cross Game’s Kou Kitamura has wit and no especial love for the game. Goro wouldn’t recognise a woman if one happened to burst from his rib, but Kou has a best friend who is cute, intelligent, perfect for him, and he knows it. In Major, baseball comes first and drama second; in Cross Game, the drama circumscribes the baseball.
Having reached that conclusion roughly nine minutes into the first episode, I decided to stop comparing the two. This would be a completely different experience. This would be smart and witty and subtle - and hell yes maybe even a little arty with all those contemplative gazes everyone keeps throwing each other. The show starts slowly, deliberately holding back on Kou’s incredible talent while dropping definite hints that viewers should not take their eyes off him. Kou himself may feel apathetic about baseball but his team mates look to him as the secret weapon, even going to extraordinary lengths to hide his training from opponents. And that’s generally the kind of steady confidence viewers can expect for the remainder; most of the time, Cross Game stews with a tension that builds and builds and peaks victoriously during rip-roaring baseball games.
Original creator Mitsuru Adachi’s (Touch, H2) preference for subtle, extended characterisation in the context of fragile romance is very much in evidence here. The characters live in a stable suburban environment and their core beliefs are never challenged, giving Adachi much room to languidly reveal their facets through delicate reactions and quirky humour. Kou’s will-they-won’t-they romance with resident heroine Aoba Tsukishima benefits greatly from this as their complex personalities clash and meld in all the right places. The result is an emotional double-pronged plot comprising cute romance and visceral baseball tournaments.
Unfortunately, no matter how ingenious a series, there is always room for things to go tits up. If any show struck home this truism, it’s the beautifully crafted yet bafflingly clumsy Cross Game.
There are omens of its decline beforehand, namely the frequent references to Kou’s friend, Wakaba. Despite her loose relevance to the immediate events at hand, Adachi is never quite able to get rid of her. At least every other episode, she will pop up in flashbacks or photographs or someone will mention her in a conversation; she ends up haunting the narrative with the subtlety of a poltergeist, rattling our patience and marring an otherwise graceful record.
What strikes the decisive blow, though, is An Almighty Twist around the thirtieth episode that manages to be both tactless and wholly unbelievable. At that point, Adachi’s refined sensibility and intuition seemingly evaporate into nothing and the narrative, theretofore flying on wings of homely drama, swiftly sinks like a slider. It doesn’t all fall apart, exactly, but the narrative’s store of unconditional trust gets exhausted and the developments thereafter never feel as convincing.
Adachi’s concept design of monkey-eared, baby-faced pretty kids is endearing and expressive but also highly limited. From Touch to Short Program, his protagonists look identical, and Kou seems to be yet another clone. Apart from that, the realistic, muted colour tones and simple environments create an attractive understated effect.
No one will remember Cross Game for its soundtrack because most of the scenes prefer to go au naturale. Mostly, the music stays away until called upon to add zest to the action, and then it does so while on repeat. The various opening and closing themes, on the other hand, work well as catchy and emotive bookends to the drama in between. I wouldn’t buy any of the songs, but rarely did I skip them either.
Just before a big game that will decide their dreams for Koushien, Aoba asks a friend Yuuhei Azuma whether they can rely on Kou to deliver.
Azuma: He does seem usually unreliable. But…
Azuma: He’s too much of a mystery.
Kou’s mystery, his lackadaisical stoicism, is precisely what generates much of the show’s subtler intrigue. Miyu Irino plays Kou with a level-headed and highly likeable irony: he delivers dead-pan asides and faces both friends and foes with a neutral friendliness that gives nothing away. More so because his rare unguarded moments actually reveal that, behind his slacker persona, the cogs are sturdily turning. Even if he appears to be indifferent to baseball itself, he still has a powerful reason for playing. He makes for an intriguing mix of the traditional shounen hero who glides over adversity with trained aloofness and the modern man who is nonetheless intelligent and self-aware.
Aoba’s heroic, hot-tempered passion thus makes for an instantly engaging contrast. She plays second fiddle to no one, becoming Kou’s mentor and a key trainer of the Seishuu team. She represents not just Kou’s love interest but the other half of Cross Game, bringing an intelligent, strategic passion that Kou struggles to express. Adachi creates in her that rare shounen female character who is as capable and dedicated as her male counterparts. Kou’s understated charisma and her trained expertise play off each other wonderfully and form the pillar propping the show’s overhanging charm.
A few of the secondary characters, notably straight-talking Azuma and comic relief Senda, make their own unique impression. But there is also deadweight. Cousin Mizuki arrives at Aoba’s household one fine day with the intention of winning her heart… and then mills around uselessly in the background like a tired gag for the rest of the time. Mizuki and his pointless ilk frustrate only because Adachi shows great talent when creating other engaging walk-ons like Aoba’s sister Momiji, Azuma’s brother Junpei, and the highly feared baseball opponent Mishima.
Cross Game delivers gently rolling romantic drama spiced with baseball games that will send viewers flying from their seats - and all this driven by quaint and lovable characters. Although Adachi seems to forget what to do with it all two thirds of the way, Cross Game nevertheless turns out to be a rare, multifaceted experience that shounen fans should grab at the next opportunity.