Spring Training

Aoizaka High School Baseball Club

Aoizaka High School Baseball Club frontispiece

It's February 15, and you know what that means. Pitchers and catchers peek out of the dugout, and if they see their shadows, local sportswriters have to pretend that the Pirates could be contenders for the next six weeks.

Honestly, I don't know why they bother pretending. The Pirates are so bad that Neil Huntington's incremental tinkering isn't going to improve their win-loss record one bit. This team needs a complete dynamiting and rebuilding along the lines of the 1997 Pirates, and the longer they delay it the longer their losing streak will get.

But enough of my hang-ups. You want comics!

"Aoizaka High School Baseball Club" originally ran in the September 16, 2005 issue of Weekly Shonen Sunday, which was one of the comics I purchased during my trip to Japan. I gave most of the other manga I purchased on this trip to a friend's daughter, keeping only a single issue of Tsurikichi Sampei Classic and this single story (razored out of the phone book). Why these two? Out of all the manga I purchased in Japan, these were the only stories where I understood everything that was going on. Given that there are tons of incomprehensible American comics, being able to follow a comic in a foreign language was a definite sign of superior storytelling.

Anyway, let's take a look at "Aoizaka High School Baseball Club" and see how some clear storytelling, with a small assist from the reader's baseball knowledge, can make a comic completely understandable even if you don't read the language.

Tons of images and analysis behind the cut...

Aoizaka High School Baseball Club p.1

Aoizaka High School Baseball Club excerpt, p. 1

Here's the first story page. We've got two people wearing batting helmets (possibly the same person, depending on the style of helmet, but at least one of them is actively batting or in the warm-up circle), a catcher, and a (as-yet unidentifiable) fielder, all standing around looking shocked. What's going on isn't clear — and intentionally so, as the artist is trying to build tension.

There are a couple of techniques used on these pages that you'll see over and over again through the story. First, we've got the tilted panel borders imply that action is happening. There's also a figure, superimposed over the rest of the panels on the page, which implies that all of the actions are happening simultaneously. And finally, there's a full bleed at the bottom of the page, which drags your eye to the left and entices you want to turn the page and see how the action is resolved.

This page is okay by itself — it's not spectacularly composed, but it gets the job done.

Aoizaka High School Baseball Club p.2-3

Aoizaka High School Baseball Club excerpt, p. 2-3

Now it's obvious what's going on — the fielder has his hand raised as if catching a ball, there's a runner at his feet, we've got a close play at the plate which has gone well for the fielding team (which I'm guessing is the titular Aoizaka High School Baseball Club, judging from the "A" on their hats). How can you tell? Well, you have the umpire's body in the upper left, making that distinctive "out" punching motion, and you've also got the other Aoizaka players in the lower right, pumped up and celebrating. Note the shocked look on the fielder's face indicates that this was a really close play — he's excited to get the call. Heck, even the crowd is shocked.

Also, this has been a complicated play. The wide shot makes it clear that there are a players clustered around second and third bases, implying some sort of multiple-steal attmept. We can also see that the downed runner is at home plate, and there's a batter still standing just outside of the box, making it obvious what happened — the batting team just tried to steal home and failed. The runner is, of course, dejected, but the batter is also sweating bullets — he's mystified and more than a bit worried by his inability to hit the last pitch he received (I'm guessing they were trying a hit-and-run).

Note another technique being used here — widened gutters that temporally separate the individual vignettes on the page. We also have right angle panel borders rather than angled panel borders, indicating that the action has slowed down — it's a cue to be less excited.

Also note that one of these teams doesn't have a large following — third panel on the left-hand page makes it quite clear that the seats down the first-base line are completely empty, while the seats down the third-base line are packed. (At Japanese stadiums the home team's fans sit on one baseline, the away team sits on the other baseline.) From the angle that the runner walks off at, Aoizaka is the team without fan support.

Aoizaka High School Baseball Club p.4-5

Aoizaka High School Baseball Club excerpt, p. 4-5

The identitiy fo the "fielder" is now revealed to us — he's the pitcher. We know this because a) the catcher is talking to him, and b) he's wearing a pitcher's glove, with a solid mesh to conceal his grip. Judging from the catcher's extreme pose in the previous page's flashback, and the fact that the pitcher is covering home plate, we can make a guess about what led to the ambitious steal attempt — a passed ball.

The catcher is worried. We can tell from his ultra-serious expression, and also from a time-honored technique borrowed from anime. First his glasses glaze over, lending him a cold, indifferent expression, and then when he glances up, the brilliant light is reflected from his eyes instead of his glasses, making him look more intent. Obviously, this is an impromptu conference where he's telling the pitcher that they need to step it up — no more mistakes.

Aoizaka High School Baseball Club p.6-7

Aoizaka High School Baseball Club excerpt, p. 6-7

Now for a quick review of the situation, only briefly glimpsed in the previous wide shot. There are runners at second and third, easily identifiable by the positions of the runners and basemen. Also, barely seen on the scoreboard in the back, we can see that Aoizaka is the home team, that there's a full count (listed Japanese style as 2-3) and one out. At least seven innings have been played, with the only runs visible being scored in the first inning — two for Aoizaka and four for their opponent. Oddly, no glimpse of the current score.

The Aoizaka player in the upper right is clearly their manager, identifiable by the fact that she has a girl's hairstyle and she isn't wearing a glove, meaning she isn't a position player.

And now, the 3-2 pitch. Here's a nice sequence, building up the drama of the duel between pitcher and batter. The wind-up and release are both nicely done, with the positioning of the ball in the finanal panel making it really feel like it's coming right at you. I like the use of scuff marks and jagged outlines to show rotation, and a nice sunburst is always welcome in my book.

But there's also an important visual cue hidden in the wind-up — that's a really unusual grip that the pitcher has on the ball. I suspect that he's throwing knuckleballs, which would explain a) why there was a passed ball on the previous play, and b) why the batter missed by a country mile.

Aoizaka High School Baseball Club p.8-9

Aoizaka High School Baseball Club excerpt, p. 8-9

A nice sequence, here. First, the over-the-shoulder view of the pitch, with the backgroiund worn down to a tiny tunnel. I like this effect, because a) it shows how intently everyone is focusing on the pitch and makes you focus on the pitch; and b) you don't have to fill in the rest of the background, which saves time. Bonus!

The angled panel borders are back too, heightening the tension, at least at first. The batter's eye is locked on the pitch, as evidenced by that oddly disturbing dilated pupil glaring from a heaviliy shadowed face, and also by that wonderful panel of the white ball spinning in the void of space. And he's obviously got a lock on it, judging by his placement of the bat and the gradated sunburst clearly showing that he's putting all his power into this swing. The angled panel borders disappear, freezing this moment of time — these are not actions to be rushed through, but slow-motion moments to be savored.

But what's this? Why is the last panel photo-negative? That's odd and unsettling. What could this possibly mean? Also, why is the ball passing through the bat rather than ricocheting off it?

Aoizaka High School Baseball Club p.10-11

Aoizaka High School Baseball Club excerpt, p. 10-11

Because the batter misjudged the pitch again! Strike three! Nice use of the unsettling photo-negative effect to cue the audience that something funny was going on.

But look at that terrible placement — high and outside, and the catcher doesn't have a grip on it! Dropped ball on strike three! The angled panel borders are back again as the catcher scrambles to the side to get it, and turns to throw — but why is the opposing team yelling from the dugout?

The batter isn't moving! He's so shocked by his miss that he's just standing there in stunned silence!

Aoizaka High School Baseball Club p.12-13

Aoizaka High School Baseball Club excerpt, p. 12-13

There's the tag, and the second out. The catcher gloats about their good fortune — and admires the pitcher's skill. The full-panel image of the pitcher, surrounding by text, and the self-satisfied look on the catcher's face make this clear. The pitcher, though, isn't a bit worried — is he putting too much on the ball, taking too many unnecessary chances?

The batter slinks back to the dugout, while his teammate taking his practice swings berates him for missing. But the batter isn't taking this lightly — he slams his batting helmet down with authority and declares something to his teammates, perhaps that this pitcher is unhittable.

Aoizaka High School Baseball Club p.14-15

Aoizaka High School Baseball Club excerpt, p. 14-15

The retired batter is watching every pitch of the at-bat with incredible intensity — the extreme close-ups of his wide, vacant eyes and the scratchy bags beneath them showing just how much he's been pushed to the edge, as he replays his at-bat in his mind. He's clearly obsession about this more than is healthy, and the tight shot of another player (his coach?) with a cloudy background behind them clearly indicating a level of concern.

Meanwhile, the game continues. Strike one, as indicated by the umpire in the first panel. Another another caught ball in the eighth panel — strike two.

And then one more warm-up...

Aoizaka High School Baseball Club p.15-16

Aoizaka High School Baseball Club excerpt, p. 16-17

...and it's strike three, again indicated with the photo-negative technique.

But it's a passed ball again! This time, the runner is on the ball, he scrambles down the baseline. The pitcher screams, the fieldrs are shocked, the fans go wild, the manager prays, the catcher spins and fires...

Aoizaka High School Baseball Club p.17

Aoizaka High School Baseball Club excerpt, p. 18

...and the batter-runner is out at first! Three outs! Inning over!

Nice transition from the praying manager to the manager jumping for joy with her hands still clasped together.

Judging from the raucous on-field celebration, you'd think Aoizaka might have wone the game. But look closely at that dialogue in the last panel — there's two 4s and a 9 there. We're going to the bottom of the ninth with the score tied, and Aoizaka gets one more chance to win this thing!

And there you have it — two at-bats of thrilling baseball action, all completely comprehensible even if you can't tell your kanji from a hole in the ground. Of course, it helps that it's baseball — the possible actions are restricted to a narrow frame of reference that makes it easier to understand than, say, two people talking in a diner.

Even so, that's some good storytelling.

Comments (3)

  1. Colonylaser (02/22/2008)

    Excellent analysis. I have a hard time explaining to many comic fans who detest manga why there is a lot more to manga than just extended page count (or crys of "big eyes" if they're more ignorant). There is a visual story-telling language and grammar that's simply not present in western comics (may be except Jeff Smith's "Bone"). This is especially evident for action sequences of sports or martial arts titles, but the paneling subtlety and intelligence of non-action titles are equally powerful. There's why even when a US comic title is good, and the art gorgeous, sometimes I still get frustrated at the rather conventional (even bland) visual story-telling.

    I'm still convinced that the best living sports mangaka is Mitsuru Adachi (Touch, H2, Hiatari Ryoko, Rough, Slow Step, etc.). His art style and characters may appear simple, but his cinematic angles and sequetial framing in telling a gutsy sporty event borders on genius. And like your subject manga, requires almost no need of Japanese fluency. Truly scary stuff.

  2. Dave 'The Knave' White (02/22/08)

    I think that may be slightly unfair to American comics, actually. The technqiues have evolved for a different set of circumstances, and are trying to accomplish different things. Having said that, a lot of American superhero comics are extraordinarily bland, put together by people who can draw their hearts out by have no idea how sequence a flows into sequence b, and who are having difficulty picking up or adapting to new techniques.

    And as much as I like "Bone," there's plenty of other stuff out there that's got great storytelling. Maybe not mainstream or widespread as "Bone" or "Love and Rockets" but it's there.

    I've never really had a chance to read any of Adachi's baseball manga — the few installments I've seen have always been been drama- rather than game-oriented. I should probably try to get my hands on a torrent somewhere.

  3. Colonylaser (02/23/2008)

    I totally agree I was unfair and I apologize. To explain the barbs in my comment, they were the results of revisiting some canonical comics recently: Sandman, Ronin, V for Vendetta, Watchman, even Cerebus, etc. I used to tout them to my non-comic reading friends, but now I found them to be incredibly clunky, and like you say, graphically "bland". I was so frustrated I actually gave up re-reading some of them. Extended word-balloons with unnatural sounding dialogues is bad enough, but the way they utilized "narration" to convey the inner thoughts of the characters amounts to a kind of "cheating": Instead of showing us graphically the emotional struggle of the hero, the deteriorating society which the story inhabits, or some wily (or wiry) commentary from the author, it's all written out at the bottom of the panel. It gets so word-heavy, and worse, inconsequential to the art above the narrative passage, they might as well have drawn stick figures and written the rest of the story on the page(s). But if that is the case, then one must ask why should one brother with a second rate fantasy when one could read a first rate sci-fi or fantasy novel?

    For all my venom, I actually do love many American comics. I completely agree there is no lack of great titles with powerful stories, and the industry is teeming with artistic talents at the top of their craft. I'm particularly excited by the recent anthology Flight, Pride of Baghdad, indie works of Tomine and others, as well as standing by old guards from Crumb to Eisner to Aragone (my personal fav) to the twin beacons that still shine that are the Hernandez. Even though I read far more manga or old geki-ga, I found American comics have much to offer in its diversity, individual voice, and new blood.

    But as to Mitsuru Adachi, yeah, I can't speak highly enough of this master's work. His name is simply used in the superlative when it comes to baseball manga (although he has also done shoujo, swimming, boxing, girl's softball, psychic sci-fi, and samurai comedy... some more successful than others...). You are correct that there is more drama than game, but it's a set-up: the emotional drama enhances the intensity of the action.

    That's not to say everyone who loves sports manga loves Adachi. Many do not care for cliché melodrama...whereas Adachi bathes in it... fortunately, there's enough self-deprecation and slightly ecchi-humor it never feels sappy or soggy. He gleefully admits to use of clichés and recycling plots, but the genius is in how he does it. Like his art, his stories are deceptively simple... empty calories even... but they also allow him to capture his readers quickly. Once the major plot and characters are established, complication multiplies, and exploration of the major characters begins. However, it's the fun that keeps his readers coming back: Wacky minor characters help support the core plot and characters, and side-stories/events, ranging anywhere from 2 or 3 panels to several pages, break up the linear story telling. In fact, they might even convey the main event that's happening indirectly; i.e. the panel with the game-winning homerun the hero has just hit may be completely missing, replaced by a long shot outside the stadium or a column of high cumulus cloud with a very remote sound-effect KAN (bat connecting with the ball) somewhere on the panel, or still-frame of the shattering windshield of a parked car, or a street scene filled with disinterested pedestrians in front of a TV store where one of the TVs is broadcasting a shot of the hero stepping on the home plate.

    While there are many manga that downright outdo Adachi when it comes to nail biting scenarios where the tension is so high that you wonder if it ever snaps it would come ripping out of the page and tear your head off: Slam Dunk, Legend of Bari Bari, Initial D, Monkey Turn, Ore wa Tetsubei, Obi wo Gyutto Ne, Tomorrow Joe, Hajime no Ippo, Star of Giant, Captain Tsubasa, to name a few. However, only a handful of mangaka come (came) close to Adachi's mastery of the non-linear visual story-telling: He is so adapt he could insert multiple side stories, plant the seed of some complicated joke (or red herring) that doesn't bear fruit till the end of the chapter (sometimes the end of the volume), and panel outside the story continum even as a major sport (or non-sport) event is takeing place, all without losing his readers. In fact, one could go so far as to say he actually toys with his readers within his pages.

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