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Tuesday, August 12, 2014

Cross Game:

Watching Cross Game for a second time, I've come to realize this show was far more fantastic than my already high estimation of the series.  Honestly, it has everything I like in an anime and not much I dislike.  When I thought how good it was compared to my other favorite shows, it kept rising like a meteor all the way from 86th place to its current 11th place.  Am I giving it too much credit?  When I think back on just how good this show really was, I don't think so.

Cross Game isn't perfect.  Some of the jokes aren't funny and fall flat.  There's a lot of episodes that feel unnecessary and just waste time, like anything having to do with the manager-turned-movie-actress.  And for a show so lacking in fanservice, to the point that you could even show it to aged grandmothers or small children without fear, it's very frustrating when the show suddenly inserts a provocative shower scene and ruins it all.  Even though nothing indecent is directly shown, the whole idea that the show is innocent family fun goes out the window and anime fans must once more cringe and explain, "It's not like that, I'm watching it for the story. . ."

Cross Game also has a bad habit of trying to trick you into believing one thing when in fact the reality is another.  This creates false drama when actually the situation had none.  It betrays the confidence of the viewer and also kicks them out of immersion.  Because the story would never naturally do these 180 hairpin turns, you're reminded it's just a story and the wonderful realism that makes Cross Game so great evaporates into thin air.  If only the author didn't like playing these lame pranks/jokes on his audience, the story could have been much better.  However, these events are few and forgivable in a fifty episode long series.

The biggest weakness Cross Game has is also its greatest strength.  The fate of the world isn't at stake.  The superhero cannot shoot out fireballs from his palms.  It isn't set on a magical alternate world.  There's no time travel.  What you see is what you get.  It's just an ordinary story about an ordinary boy and an ordinary girl ordinarily falling in love in an ordinary school in plain old modern day Japan.

It's hard to turn a setting like that into a 1,000 episode epic like One Piece or Naruto.  It's also difficult to create crazily tragic back stories for all the characters that only magic can overcome, like in Clannad, Higurashi or Little Busters.  There are no explosions and world politics never comes into play, so Lelouch vs. Charles Brittania is out.  The point is, an ordinary story can only feature ordinary things, so a lot of imagination and creativity goes down the tubes.  If you look at storytelling as escapism, as going places the real world can't take you, as a chance to do more and be more than the real world offers, Cross Game doesn't benefit one lick from this feature.  The whole story could be done as a live action show without a hitch (though then you'd lose the amazing, incredibly great faces that the anime characters display, with facial expressions the real world has never once created but are completely understandable what they must be thinking inside their heads at a single glance anyway, and you'd lose the incredibly talented voice actors who put their all into this show's animated version's dialogue, so honestly let's just keep this an anime shall we?).

But Cross Game also benefits from this realism.  Because it feels like something that could actually happen, what does happen on the screen is 100% accepted into your inner heart, empathized with at full power, and suffuses your soul as though the events that had occurred was a story about your own family and not someone else's.  I've never seen such a relatable story in my life.  You want to root for these people moreso than you've ever rooted for anyone before, they're just that close to your heart, they mean just that much to you.  And it's all because they feel like they could really be real, that the story really could have transpired just the way it was told.  By getting rid of all the escapism and wild imaginations run amok which forms the strong point of every other good series, Cross Game managed to get this far by sticking to believable reality.  Bakuman also has this strength, for which I give it an enormous amount of credit.  Papa Kiki kind of has this strength, but unfortunately the Road Observation club is too comically ridiculous to be believable in the real world.  In any case, stories that stay real are extremely rare, and stories that stay real and keep you invested in what happens because you care about the events as much as when the world is at stake and mechas are blowing up all around you are even rarer.

Cross Game also has many traits which are essential to any good story:  At 50 episodes, it's properly long enough to tell a good story with sufficient detail and characterization and plot developments to feel like you really experienced something, and that what you experienced was really real.  I've found that a story can reach any maximum length, but the ideal minimum length is 48.  That's where Clannad, Code Geass, Higurashi, Little Busters, and K-On! all ended up.  Cross Game is exactly at that sweet spot where it's sufficiently long to say everything it wanted to say and no longer.  12 episodes makes for no more than an appetizer, a rushed mishmash of nonsense, like how Angel Beats ended up.  Bleach went for 200 episodes and then was canceled before it even reached its ending because the pacing was too slow and everyone got tired of waiting for more worthwhile content.  Obviously both of these options are mistakes compared to a compact but thorough 50 eps of length.

This is the second most important trait to Cross Game being good.  It starts at the beginning and goes to the very end, with no filler in the middle.  It's all the straight out genuine story, in entirety, that you can just watch in one sitting and know the whole tale.  This is a rare trait in anime, which tends to end at a cliffhanger or only get adapted sporadically between massive segments of non-canon filler.  It also doesn't cut major segments of the story out in the interests of brevity or continuity, like the Clannad and Little Busters anime did.  If you watch Cross Game you get the story, the whole story, and nothing but the story.  The number of other series that can say that can probably be counted on two hands.

Cross Game's art is uniquely beautiful and expressive.  It feels nostalgic, warm and fuzzy just to look at, and immediately puts you in the right mood (a good mood) for experiencing the tale as it was meant to be experienced.  The voice acting talent is perfect.  I wouldn't want to change anyone's voices or alter a single line spoken.  The production value is great, with all the animation and high definition wide screen sharp imagery you could ask for.

Finally, there's the story.  I don't think any story has ever taken life, or death, more seriously than Cross Game has.  This show will make you cry, and cry, and cry.  And it doesn't even have to manipulate you into doing so.  There are no dramatic death scenes, no one screaming over bloody corpses or going into any hysterics, no swelling music that tries to wring your emotions out of you forcefully.  Everything is understated, quiet and respectful.  Silence says more than words.  The truth is just left naked and exposed to fend for itself.  Nor does death just 'go away' afterwards.  No one gets over it.  It just hurts and hurts and hurts, forever.  That is death.  Not a one time dramatic event, but something that happens again every day the person you care about isn't around anymore.  It doesn't happen once, but over and over again, every time you remember them, they die in your heart all over again, and it brings the tears back to your eyes.  Ten episodes in, twenty episodes in, thirty episodes in, fifty episodes in, the death, the missing, the loneliness, the compassion for those left behind is still there, still aching, still expressed in every character's feelings.  Death does not go away.  The character doesn't just go missing or absent or move overseas.  But neither does life just end.  Not when so many people are still thinking about her, not when so many people are still acting out their lives under her influence, not when so many people are still taking into consideration what she would have wanted, how she would have felt, and what she would have said in any given situation.  You can't die so long as you're loved, because your presence isn't forgotten or ignored no matter how much time passes.  You live inside your loved ones hearts, and only when they die of old age do you all pass away peacefully, together, leaving no one behind and no one lonely.  This is death, and likewise, this is the power of life and love.

Nor has the two sides of the story, the sports side and the romantic side, ever been so beautifully interwoven as in Cross Game.  It is completely realistic and absolutely believable that the romance between the two main characters develops and relies on the results of their sports matches.  In every other sports show, you could just shrug it off as 'just a game,' and call it a massive waste of time and energy over nothing.  But you can't say that about Cross Game, because in Cross Game that sport is the one promise and connection our characters still have left to the girl they can't meet or please any other way.  Because she's dead, there's no other dream you can grant her, than the dream she had that day.  It's more than a game.  It's everything.

Furthermore, by interacting daily together in their baseball club, the boy and girl spend the time together necessary to find out the good points about each other, and how compatible the two seemingly disparate leads really are.  If baseball didn't bring them together, their romance never would have begun, and they would have just drifted apart like dandelion petals on the wind.  There is truth in sports.  It reveals your innermost character in a way nothing else can.  It rips off the masks we wear in daily life and forges tempered steel in our souls.  Romance always has a better prospect when people can learn each other's true nature.  It wouldn't be true love without the truth.  And where can you find truth better than in the effort and passion put into sports?

The introduction of Akane in the second half of the show is genius.  Through her almost mystical similarity to the deceased, she gets to impart Wakaba's last gems of wisdom and last wishes for Aoba and Kou that up until now they had stubbornly refused to heed.  She gives them the push they need to move forward at just the right time.  Without her, perhaps neither of them would have ever honestly accepted the feelings that had grown in their own hearts after all those years together.  Her favorable winds made the ship of story reach happy shores, and simultaneously explained why the ship had foundered up until then without her help.  Lastly, Akane's illness brought back all the immediacy, pain and dread that had quietly subsided since the beginning of the story, and makes you cry all over again just when you thought you'd reached safety.  Akane is the last major 'problem' in the story while also being the final piece of the puzzle necessary for the solution.  That's brilliant writing.  When a single part can serve two roles, engineers go crazy with delight, but it's even more beautiful when a writer can pull it off.

The strong female leads in this show are a unique gem you won't see elsewhere.  None of which in any way diminishes or demeans the male leads, who are on the contrary delighted to have such forceful and dynamic personalities at their side.  If you want a voice for equality, here it is.  Cross Game is the show you've been waiting for.

Do you care about life?  Death?  Family?  Romance?  Friendship?  Hard work?  Guts?  Victory?  Bonds?  Loss?  Gain?  Do you care about anything at all?  In that case, Cross Game is the show for you.  Cross Game has something to teach you about all of it.  Cross Game has a feeling you should feel, and thoughts you should think, at least once in your life before you die, preferably early on where you can apply it to your own life.  It's just that wise.  It's just that good.

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