And so we return to our ongoing retrospective on the history of baseball comics in Weekly Shonen Jump in advance of Smoky B.B.‘s serialisation in the issue due out today (May 27th). Last time we covered some of the older material from the first decade and a bit of the anthology’s history, so this time we’re gonna jump ahead a bit past a whole bunch of series that didn’t stand out enough in the early 80s straight to 1986, looking at the best of the titles to come out between then and 2006, which is when baseball decided to take its leave from Shonen Jump for some seven years.
But first, a quick mention of why baseball is even such a popular topic for manga in Japan (I mean, Shonen Sunday author Mitsuru Adachi has even created a new baseball comic every decade since the 80s, a level of dedication to the sport above most others). Baseball was introduced in Japan in the 1870s, and after an initial slow burn spread like veritable venereal diseases, infesting the whole country with a fever for baseball that endures to this day. It has such has a long history in Japan, and even has suitable shonen fodder in high school baseball, which not only fits into the demographic that would be reading shonen magazines (that being anywhere between 8 and 18, traditionally), but also gives the base plot of most baseball comics out there, as characters aim to reach the finals at the Koshien in both the spring invitational tournament and the summer baseball championship.
So it’s a double whammy, in both subject matter and popularity, and makes a lot of sense for shonen publishers to be fond of as it’s basically a marketable product MADE for their magazines. Sure, it doesn’t always work, but the audience is already there, just waiting for a good series. So with that in mind, let’s take a look at a whole load of series that managed to tap that vein (or fail to in one instance) over the years.
Umisora Prefecture High School Baseball Member Yamashita Taro-kun by Koji Koseki – 1986-1990
Two things: 1) This is my attempt at translating the title, and isn’t guaranteed to be completely on the money and 2) This series is not to be mistaken for Yamashita Taro-kun or its 2005 follow-up Yamashita Taro-kun: Umi to Sora no Monogatari, which are sequel series about the main character in his later years. That said, I’m probably going to refer to it as Yamashita-kun from now on because I’m incredibly lazy.
This series is about exactly what you’d think from the name and that first cover on the left; it follows Umisora High School’s baseball team and their short, misshapen ace pitcher Taro Yamashita as they face off against a number of other school teams in the Kanto regional tournament and at the Koshien tournament. That plot of aiming for the Koshien makes it seem a bit typical considering what I said at the start of this post, but a nice sense of comedy (the opening match in the series has Umisora High’s team all trip over the clumsy Yamashita as they run out to greet their opponents, for example) and an incredibly iconic look for Yamashita himself make it stand out, the latter being to the point that when the first waves of the 45th anniversary Weekly Shonen Jump figurines were revealed recently, he was straight in there, in a wave alongside such memorable characters as Reborn (Reborn!), Ryuk (Death Note), and Jotaro (JJBA). He stands out amongst all the baseball comics characters, and that paid off for the book, it running a solid 21 volumes and a whole buttload of matches before Taro Yamashita hung up his hat. Koji Koseki, on the other hand? I have a feeling he’ll come up again before long.
And yes, it’s available on ebookjapan.
Ace! by Yoichi Takahashi – 1990-1991
This one’s not really that worthy of note as a series, being a pretty short series not many people bother to remember, but is still worth writing about due to the author. Yoichi Takahashi is mostly known for his immense multi-series opus Captain Tsubasa, a football (soccer) series following a bunch of young footballers as they grow up, play flashy special move-filled football from their school team right up through the world cup and beyond. It’s the sort of career-defining never-ending series that you can never really escape. Yet a couple of years after the first Captain Tsubasa series had wrapped, Takahashi was trying his hand at a couple of other sports comics. The second of these was a boxing comic called Chibi, but the first was this, Ace!, where a talented young pitcher helps elevate a school team to success using flashy moves and the power of friendship.
It’d be a bit lazy to call it Captain Tsubasa with baseball, especially as it wasn’t as popular as that series, but it does seem to have a lot in common. This is no bad thing, of course. To be a poor relative to a series of that calibre is to still be a creation of one of the most accomplished creators in the history of manga, and it at the least was incredibly pretty. It did only last 9 volumes though, which is slightly more than its boxing brethren (which fell a few shorter than that, I recall), but as a footnote in Jump’s baseball history it’s interesting all the same.
Pennant Race by Koji Koseki – 1991-1994
I told you he’d come up again. In a rare instance of lightning actually striking twice, Koseki returned to baseball a year after the conclusion of Yamashita-kun with this, another tale of a cartoonishly deformed baseball player. Pennant Race: The Miracle of Taiichi Yamada follows the titular character as he forcibly follows his dream to play baseball in the big leagues despite his shortcomings (long story short he’s an 18 year old trapped in a prepubescent body), accepting a tiny contract and developing whatever unusual skills he can to play alongside his talented big brother and achieve his dreams.
Visually it’s the goofier cousin to Koseki’s earlier work on Yamashita-kun, and has a bolder line to it that suits the presentation of the main character, much the same as Yamashita. Its biggest stumbling block to me, however, is that Taiichi Yamada jug-eared chimp look isn’t nearly as iconic as the muppet-esque features of Taro Yamashita, and as such doesn’t stick in the mind quite as strong. Despite this the series endeared itself to readers and lasted a respectable 14 volumes, all of which are up for sale digitally (with the first volume having a preview available) over at ebookjapan, which is quickly becoming the most useful resource for me reading any of this old OOP material. Who knew?
ROOKIES by Masanori Morita – 1998-2003
As far as big-name talents in Weekly Shonen Jump go, Masanori Morita is pretty much grade-A prime material. A former assistant of Tetsuo Hara, creator of the globally renowned Fist of the North Star, Masanori came out the gate swinging with his debut work Rokudenashi BLUES (Rokudenashi means Good-For-Nothing, by the way), a tale of an aspiring boxer that was really just a gag-heavy delinquent comic. It was a huge smash, running 41 volumes and cementing the author in the minds of Jump readers as a force to be reckoned with. I think it is this reputation that helped him break out with another hit years later with ROOKIES, a tale of a bunch of delinquents becoming a successful baseball team under their happy-go-lucky coach, Koichi Kawato.
Unlike so many of the baseball titles I’ve listed here, ROOKIES really feels like a full-on drama (to the point that there is in fact an utterly fantastic TV drama of it), with all characters getting a lot of care and attention, anguish and catharsis, as they challenge the perception of them as thugs and hoodlums and try to prove that yeah, they’re not necessarily great people, but that won’t stop them proving themselves as great baseball players. Masanori Morita has a certain touch in his comics, tapping into a level of verisimilitude that few others can replicate, making his works set in schools wholly believable and immersive. You care what happens to these kids, and whenever something important happens, it elicits a strong emotional reaction.
A lot of this is the art, where Masanori has stepped far above what he was doing on Rokudenashi BLUES, trotting out something that is far removed from his former tutor, and much more his own, straddling the line between that more realistic style and simpler facial features. Closure is an important part of the comics reading process, and a hyper-detailed face can make a character feel distant. Masanori’s style on this and his current work Beshari Gurashi have balanced the two by having faces that are capable of a huge range of exaggerated emotions, from pouting to beaming smiles to being twisted in complete misery. It’s probably his strongest talent, and it worked here to great effect, being one of the many elements that kept the series going for 24 volumes of enjoyable baseball delinquency. And yes, it’s available on ebookjapan, in the larger bunkoban editions, which I guess in digital volumes just means more bang for your buck.
Mr. Fullswing by Shinya Suzuki – 2001-2006
Of course you can’t have all this high drama and emotive serious stuff without there being a palette cleanser to balance it out, and so midway through ROOKIES’ serialisation one of the members of the popular “Watsuki Gang” (assistants of Rurouni Kenshin creator Nobuhiro Watsuki, including such talents as Eiichiro Oda, Hiroyuki Takei, Mikio Ito and this series’ very own Shinya Suzuki) came out of the woodwork with this, a gag-filled baseball manga that leant closer towards BoBoBo-Bo Bo-BoBo than it did to actual baseball manga. And yet, despite this, we still got a lot of drama, shonen sports action, anguish and fantastic spectacles. It just had a bunch of incredibly weird gags punctuating the series throughout alongside all of this stuff.
Mr. Fullswing is about Saruno, a perverse idiot full of weird jokes who basically joins his school baseball club because he falls in love with their female manager, Nagi, and soon discovers he actually cares about the sport, making friends in his team-mates and them all becoming regular players.
Something interesting that Mr. Fullswing does that other series don’t seem to delve into that much is character theming. All the main characters are animals from the chinese zodiac, and it reflects on their personalities and skills. Saruno is the monkey, for example, and is an endless joker and fool, as befits the animal. His rival Inukai is a dog, and whilst something can be said for his bark being worse than his bite, it easily reflects more in his looks than anything else, as it does with Tomaru, the rabbit of the team, who has a hat with big floppy ears to it, as well as an appropriate amount of leg strength granting him excellent speed for stealing bases and the like. It’s a well-thought through concept that really makes the series stand out from the pack, along with its excellently written humour.
And of course, seeing as this seems to be the case with almost all of these, it’s available over at ebookjapan.
Over Time by Yoichi Amano – 2006
And so we come to the problem child, the baseball comic that bombed right before Jump took this huge gap in publishing such titles. Over Time is best summarised referencing other things; What if Hikaru no Go was about Baseball, and instead of it being an ancient ghost it was just the main character of Pretty Face having died in the bus accident from that title. So what we have is a title that skews to close in feel to elements from two other popular works, with one of those elements being a huge part of both series, and trying to use those in a new subject by being about baseball.
Weekly Shonen Jump readers tend to be a bit volatile towards perceived plagiarism in works (for example, Hungry Joker is a recent example of a series that bombed whilst skewing too close to another work, D.Gray-Man), which is enough of a red mark against a work, but being the debut work of the still very much unrefined Yoichi Amano, who has since gone on to become a formidable artist in his own right (albeit with muddy storytelling), didn’t do much to save it from an early grave at only three volumes long. It just wasn’t very good.
One might wonder if Over Time’s complete failure was what prompted Weekly Shonen Jump to not publish any more baseball titles for seven years, but really it’s likely to be much simpler than that (to say nothing of how Jump had just had huge successes in ROOKIES and Mr. Fullswing, encouraging if nothing else). No, as Weekly Shonen Jump tends to rely on what series are being pitched at them, it might just be that there weren’t any good baseball one-shots or series pitches being thrown at them all this time. As a company they aren’t going to want to publish anything that isn’t up to scratch, and if they have nothing at all there’s even less reason for such a thing to happen.
Which brings us to today’s debut, Smoky B.B.. To be published, it had to have something going for it, and all early signs point to that being the case, telling its story about a gambling, drinkings and smoking teenage baseball player to some level of quality, like a slightly unpolished baby of Yusuke Murata and Hiromu Arakawa stepped up to create it. Whether it’ll go over well with the readers or maintain the quality from this first issue is another matter, but for now at least we can be grateful for the return of a sport with such a reputation in Weekly Shonen Jump.