Wednesday, October 17, 2012

Ookiku Furikabutte and Why it Might be the Best Baseball Manga

For those of you who don't know, baseball might actually be the all Japanese sport.

Let me explain that statement a little bit. If you have ever lived or traveled in Japan, you would be very aware of how popular baseball is in this country. Every major city has a major league team and with those teams come HUGE cheering sections who have songs for each player on the team. Indeed, in the last several years Japanese baseball players have been infiltrating the American Baseball League ranks and receiving MVP trophies; which was huge in Japan. Ask a young kid in Japan who their favorite baseball player is and they are very likely to tell you Matsui or Yuu Darvish, who both endorse everything from baseball equipment to socks. Those who make it into the MBL are huge stars in Japan and they are the players who legitimize Japanese success in the sport.

Now you might be asking yourself, 'Why is baseball so popular in Japan?' and the answer to that question would fall to the strategy, team yet individual play, and manga. Yeah, you read that right. I said manga is probably a major reason why boys want to play baseball and girls want to be managers. You only have to look so far as to Adachi Mitsuru and his baseball manga to understand this statement. Touch was a phenomena in Japan, and it still plays a part in Japanese high schools. The opening theme song for the Touch anime is still played at koshien (the baseball stadium that holds the high school baseball tournament) every year and all brass bands can play that song. There were even news segments that were titled, 'Looking for the Real Minami' because her character became the scale for the female ideal in this country. There is not a single person over the age of 30 who did not read the manga or watch the anime. Now that Adachi has serialized a semi-sequel to Touch, the manga is being republished with original covers and is undergoing a revival of sorts.

Contrary to what you might be thinking, this post is not about Adachi Mitsuru and how he can be claimed by some to be the best baseball mangaka. In fact, it is about and completely different type of baseball manga and my argument that it is the best baseball manga that has been produced in the last 20 years.

Ookiku Furikabutte.

Perhaps the main reason why this manga is so complex and dynamic is the fact that it is technically a seinen manga. Higuchi Asa is able to create layered plots and reactions within her characters, leading them actually be realistic in comparison to others. Mihashi, Abe, Tajima, Izumi, and the other characters are dedicated, hard working, but most importantly, they are real. Each character possesses a talent or quality that separates them from other baseball manga characters. For example, Adachi Mitsuru, for all that I love his work, creates his characters to have the same skill set. The main character is always a pitcher with an amazing fast ball. There is always a catcher best friend and the rival star hitter to round out the characters. Of course, it can be argued that Ookiku Furikabutte is the same, but I would argue that there is one anomaly and that is Mihashi.

Look at any shonen sports manga, and trust me I've read a lot, and you will not find a character like Mihashi in any of them. The why he is constructed is what initially draws you into the story. Instead of possessing a fastball thats only seen every ten years, he holds technique. And while I have no idea if his ability to continually change his pitch direction is actually possible or not, I found myself completely drawn to him. Why does he have such low self-esteem? How does a group of guys actually deal with him on a regular basis? One page you think he is completely pathetic and you just want him to grow a pair and the next you are amazed by his single-minded determination to pitch. His steady growth is compelling for along with the rest of the characters he is not only maturing in baseball skill, but maturing as a person.

Not only Mihashi, but characters on other teams elevate this manga. The sheer number of characters in this manga is a little mind boggling and keeping them all organized is almost impossible. All of these characters and different teams really layer the world and story because instead of just focusing on one certain rivalry, Higuchi magnifies the real world of Japanese high school baseball. Like March Madness in the US, the number of teams involved ups the drama and it heightens the upsets.

Yet it is not only Mihashi and the other characters that make this baseball manga the best; its the sheer amount of reality that brings it to the top for me. While reading a regular sports manga, we find similar characters moving around in each one. There is always the main character that is determined to be the "star" or hold above average skills in the sport being presented. Just look at Kuroko no Basuke, Haikuu!, Arena no Kishi, and Adachi Mitsuru manga to see that I am talking about. Not ever looking at how they play the sport, it is their personalities off the court or field that are my interest. For example, Kuroko. Kagami, Kuroko, Aomine, Kise, Hyuga, and the rest of the characters are all given rather extreme personalities. This can be attributed to the fact that they have distinctive features to gain attention and to be attractive to different age groups and personalities for the readers. Slam Dunk and Prince of Tennis were the same. The characters had skills and then their personalities were therefore matched accordingly. But when you look at Ookiku Furikabutte we can see a clear departure from this.

These characters are 100% realistic. You look at Kuroko and you can automatically name these personalities as manga characters and therefore set up a small fantasy world you can enter while reading. Ookiku Furikabutte creates a world that could actually happen. In fact, if you've played a sport you have probably met these personalities. That is how realistic they are. This is probably because of the seinen nature of the manga. With the freedom to incorporate elements that are heavier and more mature for a mature audience, mangaka can push the readers but also feel the freedom to engage them with more realistic characters. Just look at Uchuu Kyodai and we can see a realism intertwined with the fantasy slice of life setting within NASA and astronauts. Gaku is another wonderful example. Within a tragically realistic setting, the reader is invited into the uncompromising world of search and rescue.

I have established that what makes this manga the best baseball manga is the personalities of its characters and the realism that exudes from the story. These characters mature not only in skill but as humans. It is this progression that really captures the reader and keeps them reading, for if a character does not mature than the character remains stagnant therefore only moving within a good plot.

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