I want to write a little about Ookiku Furikabutte, a Japanese manga (also made into an anime series) by Asa Higuchi. In short, it’s about high school baseball, it’s nineteen volumes long so far and not even close to finished (I hope; also, this is by no means an uncommon length for a manga series), the art is somewhat on the crude side, but obviously as a deliberate style choice rather than through lack of talent, it’s funny and touching and realistic (mostly) and goes into more detail about baseball games than even I can deal with.
The story centers on the baseball team at Nishiura High School, which has never had a baseball team before; hence there are only ten team members, plus student manager, supervising teacher, and coach, and all the players are sophomores (Japanese high schools are 10th-12th grade). Their ace pitcher is Ren Mihashi, who makes up for slow pitching speeds with incredible control, and comes in completely unsure of himself because of the way his teammates in junior high treated him. Catcher Takaya Abe, strong-willed and short-tempered, recognizes Mihashi’s gifts and commits himself to getting the best out of him, never mind that Mihashi is absolutely terrified of him most of the time. The others are neat people too, and they come together quickly into a strong team, both on the diamond and in their mutual bonds; I like best the story lines which show us the team just hanging out together.
We also get to know numerous other teams who are Nishiura’s opponents; honestly I have trouble keeping them straight, but each has its own personalities and its own issues. The two I don’t lose track of are Motoki Haruna, a brilliant pitcher who played with Abe in junior high school and parted less than amicably with him, and his laid-back, observant, only moderately gifted catcher, Kyohei Akimaru, one of my favorites (I have a thing about catchers in glasses). They turn up in and out of Nishiura’s orbit, following their own story.
Anyway, there you have the basic outline. At the moment in the series, Nishiura and Haruna’s school, Musashino Daiichi, have both lost in the summer prefectural tournament, meaning their hopes for the national tournament (Koshien) will have to wait till next year; they’re getting busy training again. Volume 19 is full of delicious bits, but—well—a lot of people write fanfiction about this series slashing any number of the main characters (mostly Mihashi/Abe and Haruna/Akimaru), and I have to say this volume makes it hard to NOT see them that way, even if one wanted to ;) . Examples follow.
Just for one thing, apart from Mihashi and Abe sharing a hotel room (on a team trip, two beds, very innocent), we get the two of them alone in a room while Abe has his shirt off TWICE in one book. Once is in the hotel room, Abe emerging from the shower with a towel across his shoulders; the other is in the school weight room earlier on. Thanks to Abe’s one-track baseball mind and Mihashi’s, um, quirkiness, I would not say that sexual tension was a prime feature of either scene, but it’s entertaining. Oh, and at the team retreat we get the endearingly domestic scene of Abe waking Mihashi early so they can make breakfast for everyone (and it turns out Mihashi’s the one who knows what he’s doing in the kitchen, he even gets up the nerve to yell at Abe about dumplings).
What else? Abe and Mihashi go to talk to Haruna (with Akimaru standing by) just after the latter has lost his big game. Abe and Haruna end up yelling in each other’s faces, rehashing the past, with Mihashi wide-eyed and Akimaru obviously taking mental notes; and then the scene ends on a silly note with Mihashi blurting out “Haruna-san, c-c-can I feel your muscles?”
Akimaru’s teammates, rhapsodizing about how playing on a team with Haruna has made them feel they can aim for the sky; and Kyohei Akimaru standing there while they talk at him, wondering “How could they think I make a difference to him? Teamwork…confidence…dreaming big…?!” as if he’d never heard the words before and wasn’t sure he wanted to hear them now. This is both why I like Akimaru so much and why I think this is such a good manga in the first place; individuality which doesn’t fit into any of the expected patterns.