I have nothing against sports in particular, in fact, I played soccer back in the day from grade school up until my senior year of high school. I always envied other jocks who played multiple sports from childhood; I was never allowed to play hand sports as a kid since my mother was afraid of the possibility of her darling piano-playing daughter obtaining some hand injury. Soccer was okay as long as I stayed away from the goalie position–broken legs: you can still play piano!
Despite liking the physical action of sports, I have never enjoyed watching them. Football? Baseball? Even soccer? BAH. There isn’t much opportunity for watching sports in person where I live, so television is pretty much the only medium for getting your fix. I just don’t understand the appeal of sitting in front of the tube staring at these little figures running around on a field like balls in a pinball machine.
So this dislike of watching sports on a screen of course translates into immediate caution towards sports anime–how in the world can sports in anime-form be any more enjoyable? Praise for Cross Game repeatedly hounded me on my searches for in-depth series, touching on almost every one of my likes: romance, comedy, drama, school, and…sports? I, in turn, repeatedly ignored suggestions for Cross Game and watched shows that temporarily pleased, but ultimately did not impress. Anxious for something with more impact and lasting power, I finally gave the baseball anime a try.
I’ll be honest. I watched the first episode, then set the show aside for several more weeks. I didn’t do this because of quality, nor because of the baseball, but because of shock at where the first episode lead me.
Episode 1: “Four-Leaf Clover” introduces protagonist Kitamura Kou, an 11-year-old boy from a sports-store-owning family. This business partly connects him to the Tsukishima family, owners of the local batting cages and a cafe. The Tsukishimas comprise of 5 family members: a father and four daughters. Kou is close to particularly one of the daughters, Tsukishima Wakaba. Since the same day when they were born at the same hospital, the two have been inseparable and it is quickly evident that the two are affectionate toward one another. My initial impressions are that this is an endearing show that centers on their friendship, and hopefully, blossoming love as they become adults. I sighed at the predictability, but admittedly still liked the presentation of humor and art style.
Speaking about sports, Cross Game features baseball, unarguably the most beloved sport of Japan (and I find baseball to be one of the most boring sports to watch on tv). Thankfully, the sport did not suck up much time in this first episode. What was displayed though, I found surprisingly easy to understand. The communication between players–batter, pitcher, and catcher–especially interested me. I simply love the idea of an incompetent ball player, who doesn’t even like the sport, being able to hit a fastball of extreme speed. Against all expectations, I actually wanted the Doors (Kou’s friends’ team) to win!
“Four-Leaf Clover” focuses primarily on Kou and Wakaba’s relationship–innocent and cotton candy-sweet. And what does the show do with my expectations? Give them to me?
You’ve been warned:
Cross Game kills off Tsukishima Wakaba.
Through the course of this introduction to the anime, I fell in love with Wakaba and her darling, clever personality. I could easily see why Kou was charmed by her. And Cross Game takes my predictions and throws them into the swift-moving river where Wakaba loses her very young life. My reaction? SCREW THIS! I shifted this anime to “watch later” and moved onto less shocking shows. I know it’s lame, but I was in the rut of predictable shows, and being proved wrong to such completeness did not agree with me.
Thankfully, however, I finally went back. Episode 2: “I Hate You!” opens up several years later, during Kou’s final year in junior high. True to his self from childhood, he still cares for Wakaba and has not shown any interest in any other girls. Kou still shares a close connection with the Tsukishima family, and we get the pleasure of seeing the animosity between him and the 3rd youngest daughter, Aoba. Tomboy-ish and pitcher extraordinaire, Tsukishima Aoba, as the title states, “hates” Kou. Insert a bit more prediction: Aoba as Kou’s next love candidate.
The 50-episode long show follows this prediction, but with care and well done execution. Any romance is diluted with a wonderful mix of “…comedy, drama, school…” and baseball. Cross Game refuses immediate satisfaction; it knows to keep an audience, you need to balance some fulfilled expectations with frustrating suspense. Kou and Aoba are never allowed to entertain notions of mutual affection due to the death that affects them both. Kou stays true to his first love, while Aoba keeps a secret promise she made with Wakaba to never steal Kou from her older sister. Of course, love rivals pop up later down the road–both characters have their fair share of fans and love confessions, all of which are turned down or held at bay.
Since I started with my opinion on televised sports, it would be a shame to not discuss how this baseball anime reversed my fears. As stated earlier, the sport does permeate all aspects of the show, but refrains from overloading you with game after game after game. We get to see all the different facets to putting together a winning high school baseball team capable of making it to, and winning, the Koushien. This includes group practices, individual trainings, teamwork both on and off the field, and the real life situations that affect game play.
As I stated before, I was personally never involved with any hand sports growing up, and though I did see the games televised, I never witnessed the teams at practice. Cross Game made the different positions easier to understand (such as shortstop, a position that never made sense to me prior to this anime). Since I viewed the sport as under enclosed conditions, I never realized how much endurance was needed to actually make it through all nine innings, and then some for any extras in case of a tie. To build up endurance (and help others lose weight), the high school coach has players either run or bike with a tire dragging behind on a rope. Simple, yet effective!
The high school team’s first trial is one of division between players and coaches. Episode 6, “Who Are You?”, sets up a situation where Seishu High School boasts a new baseball coach and several recruited baseball players from other cities. The older coach is shifted to the side to keep the “portable” players out of the way, so called because instead of sharing the field with the rest of the players, they are resigned to a portable shed elsewhere on the school property. The portable team doesn’t even have a full sized area to practice. Despite the elite skills of the recruited players on the main team, they lack teamwork as a whole as they are highly competitive and friendly camaraderie is discouraged by the extremely strict Coach Daimon. The “portable players,” on the other hand, have fun and understand each others’ skills and weaknesses; they help one another improve and share the common goal of just enjoying the game. This goal changes to include kicking Coach Daimon out by having the school host an intra-school tournament between the two teams. Here is where I find the show to shine once again. Most shows, when setting up similar situations, make sure the “good guys” win. Even when inserting suspense here and there, the outcome always assures a win. And this makes sense, since producers want to please their audience members’ expectations. Yet, with this happening repeatedly, such outcomes become tiresome. Cross Game takes that formula and tosses it out. Instead, the portables lose their first game against Coach Daimon. They take the loss, and use it to make the team more determined to not get beat again. The bump in the journey to success makes this show, again, all the more realistic.
After Coach Daimon leaves Seishu and the team is reshuffled to its final form, they set Koushien in their sights. Following the same blueprint as before, the anime does not let them win all the necessary games in the regional tournament, thus making a play for the nation wide competition impossible for Kou’s 2nd year of high school. By this point, I’m tearing my hair out in frustration since he only has one year left to get the glory and fulfill Wakaba’s prediction (as revealed in the 4th episode). The anime times their events just right, so that by the start of the 3rd year, I no longer cared about my dislike for baseball; I was just interested in seeing their hard work rewarded and all their wishes realized.
Cross Game is one of my lengthier animes at 50 episodes. At no point did I find myself tired of the plot or characters, which I find a feat on the anime’s part. Length tends to be the weakness of shows like Bleach, One Piece, and Naruto. I tried out the previous two and made it as far as 160 and 25 episodes, respectively, but the predictability and plot cycles tired me. A warning to those interested: even though the Koushien is Kou’s goal, and eventually becomes a goal of the viewer, the national tournament doesn’t actually make an appearance in the anime. They arrange it so the possibility is there with Seishu’s win in the regionals, but leave it to our imaginings on whether or not they take the nationals. Since I’ve never read the manga, I’m not sure if it takes the story further than the anime, but I didn’t mind. If they had decided to include the Koushien into the anime, I fear it may have been too similar in structure to the plot for playing in and winning the regionals. By including it, the anime may have also ruined the whole idea of the show, which I found to be the fun of baseball. Winning or losing doesn’t really matter, as long as you played to the best of your abilities, have nothing to regret, and enjoyed yourself.