The next issue of Weekly Shonen Jump, due out on the 27th of May, is a little bit special. It features the sophomore serial from the creative team of Yuuya Kawada and Kenta Komiyama, who debuted in Jump some three years ago Kikai Banashi Hanasaka Ikkyu. But it’s not the fact that they’re returning that makes this special. No, rather it’s because of the sort of series they’re doing. The comic in question is called Smoky B.B., and is the first baseball comic Weekly Shonen Jump has had since Over Time, way back in 2006. Seven years might not sound like a long time to you and me, but this drought in good ol’ bat, ball and base action is notable as the longest period Weekly Shonen Jump has gone without such a title, putting a certain weight and importance on Smoky B.B. bringing one of Japan’s favourite pastimes back to its most popular anthology.
To help you grasp quite how important this is, I’m going to go over a few of the more notable examples of the sport from Jump’s past, and perhaps look at why baseball has been so absent of late. Hopefully by the end of this little bonus bit you’ll be as tense as I am about the return of the sport next week.
Father’s Soul (Chichi no Tamashii) by Hiroshi Kaizuka – 1968-1971
Father’s Soul is the OG baseball comic for Weekly Shonen Jump, being there not only in the first ever issue, but even before that, as one of the taster titles from the last issue of Jump’s predecessor, Shonen Book. Despite this, it doesn’t seem to get much mention nowadays, save a throwaway line in Ohba/Obata’s Bakuman a couple of years ago (vol.1 ch.5, in case you’re wondering). All’s the pity, considering that it was an early success for the magazine, running a solid four years and fourteen volumes before concluding in late 1971.
Father’s Soul told the story of Hayato, the son of a craftsman, as he grows from a child into a young man, using the bat created by his late father to make his way to play baseball at the Koshien Stadium. He’s joined in this endeavour by Misaki, the son of the CEO that bought out Hayato’s dad’s baseball bat factory, and Jonouchi, the chief priest of a temple with a mysterious past.
This… Is basically all I know about it, really. I wouldn’t even swear by all of that being 100% on the money. Old jump titles are still a bit of a shaky ground for me, and Father’s Soul is very much a grey area for me. The big things to take note of are its success, its important as a debut title for the anthology, and the art style, being very much the style of its time, all big eyebrows and youthful exuberance. You can see this sort of art in titles like Wilderness Boy Isamu, Barefoot Gen and Otoko Ippiki Gaki-Taisho, with it fading away some point in the mid-70s.
Want to check out Father’s Soul yourself? Well, it is actually available digitally on a few services (handy for me, considering I want to do it one day on the podcast), incl. EbookJapan, which I suppose is as good a service as any, at least until I try each individual one and give my personal recommendations in a future text piece.
Astro Kyudan by Shiro Tozaki(story) & Norihiro Nakajima(art) – 1972-1976
Of course once Father’s Soul ended something had to step up to the plate and take its place, and whilst a couple of other baseball titles had come up during that series’ run, it wasn’t until a year after it ended that newcomers Tozaki and Nakajima rocked Weekly Shonen Jump with their tale of high baseball drama and superhuman ability, literally, with it following Astro Team, a group of unbelievably super-powered baseball players all marked with a baseball-shaped birthmark and lead by the main character and ace player Uno Kyuichi as they go up against other mental characters in increasingly high-stake matches. This is kind of another one where my knowledge is limited, but having actually read a pretty big chunk of it (I say ‘read’, I suck at kanji, so I did a shoddy job at reading it), it seems pretty straightforward, being full of these ridiculous feats and skills, like opponents jumping out of the stadium and flying through the air to grab balls, or hitting a ball with such force that it causes astrological phenomenoms. Think along the lines of Shaolin Soccer turned up to 11 and you have an idea of what sort of things Nakajima was drawing week on week in this book.
And it did well. Incredibly well, in fact, running five years with twenty volumes to its name, and over time has received several reprints, including a daunting 4-volumes-in-1 re-release by Oota Shuppan, the sort of mad collection that should take pride of place on any collector’s shelf. It’s also had a (completely hatstand) live action adaptation on tv in Japan in 2005, along with a playstation 2 game, which was suitably mad, and you can see a let’s play of that in Japanese over here, if you’re so inclined to get a peek at it.
Stylistically this remained quite close to what was expected at the time, though its real stand-out quality was its willingness to go completely off the rails, bending and stretching proportions and showing off huge sights over each match. The ball is thrown so hard that it bends into weird shapes, and characters in action can bend limbs all over the place, acting more like whips than humans as they bound about the stadiums. It’s fascinating to look at, and far beyond what anyone else was putting out at the time, further solidifying Jump’s reputation for great, long-running baseball series.
It also has another interesting point in its favour, with a… kinda positive representation of a black character, something manga still stumbles over to this day. If that doesn’t make it notable, I don’t know what does, depressing as that is to say. Oh and there’s nazis in it.
Play Ball by Akio Chiba – 1973-1978
Of course we couldn’t *just* relish in sheer insanity, and so a short time after Astro Kyudan debuted we got this, the even MORE popular Play Ball, a much more down to earth baseball comic about an injured kid giving up on his beloved sport, and his path back to playing it and bringing his junior high team on the path to victory. What really made Play Ball captivating though was its relation to the other series Chiba was serialising at the time, Captain, in Weekly Shonen Jump’s then-sister publication, Monthly Shonen Jump. Having started the year before, Captain was about the same kid, Takao Taniguchi, but instead was about his high school baseball career. Play Ball was born as a spin-off of this, showing where it al began for Taniguchi, and so you got these interesting parallels between the two series, looking at two different yet similar periods in this one character’s life.
Play Ball’s art style is also the biggest step away from the manga tics of old in this list, with much more a focus on soft lines and cute designs, giving everything just the right feel for a manga not just about but also for kids. And clearly it paid off, with Play Ball being almost as successful as its big brother, running six years to Captain’s eight, and coming in at a lengthy 22 volumes, the largest baseball manga Jump had yet had in its short lifetime. It even won the 22nd Shogakukan Manga Award together with Captain in the shonen category, a truly prestigious thing at the time. Its popularity endures to this day, with Play Ball having finally received a well-deserved anime series in 2005, some 20 years after Captain had had its own tv series.
If there’s one bitter note to Play Ball it’s that the author is no longer with us, having succumbed to his long-running bipolar disorder and ending his own life. A true shame for such a talent.
1.2 no Ahho by Kontaro – 1975-1978
Susume!! Pirates by Hisashi Eguchi – 1977-1980
Lumping these two together as one entry, both due to me not knowing enough about them and because they stand out as the least conventional of all the baseball titles I’m spotlighting today. Both use baseball as a starting point to tell absurd gag-filled tales, the former being more focused on its subject matter and satirising current affairs, and the latter instead preferring to revel in absurdity and parodies of other popular comics of the moment. Both have their own merits and what little I’ve read of both has at the least made me chuckle (not that I’m the most exacting person when it comes to gag manga, but still), which clearly shows that there’s some clear merit to making comedy out of baseball.
It’s not just the comedy stylings, either. Kontaro and Eguchi’s art couldn’t be more different, with Kontaro using his iconic style to great effect, all stumpy round-faced characters, with the iconic giant-mouthed, moustachioed look for his main character. I mean, just look at that cover on the left there; he’s such a ridiculous caricature. Also, take note of the headshot on the top left of the cover, that up-turned mouth is the most iconic face of Kontaro, and crops up in a few parody manga we’ve seen in the west, most notably the popular BoBoBo-Bo Bo-BoBo.
Hisashi Eguchi’s style is much in the same in how it uses his iconic style, but in his case it’s much more unrefined, focusing more on his use of chibi characters, coming off a bit stiffer whenever a more normal-proportioned character appears on panel. It works fine for a gag manga, seeing as the genre generally has a reputation for the art being looser than others, but to anyone aware of what Eguchi has become in the years since with his work on Stop!! Hibari-kun and his multitude of art reference books (to say nothing of some lovely art gallery pieces and the like), it might fall short.
Both 1.2 no Ahho and Susume!! Pirates are available on digital services, including the previously-mentioned ebookjapan, so if you’re curious to see what these titles look like, take a shifty over there if you’ve got a bit of money to spare (links at the start of this sentence).
This brings us to 1980, a neat place to end this first part of our look at baseball manga in Weekly Shonen Jump. There were a few smaller, less notable baseball comics released over the next couple of years, but I don’t know a damn thing about them, so join me next time when I’ll pick up in 1986 with the absolutely fantastic Kenritsu Umisora Koko Yakyu Buin Yamashita Taro-kun, and hopefully bring us right up to the present. With that in mind…
To be continued….