[Post originally published on substack on April 29, 2023.]
Before Mix (2012–present), there was Cross Game (2005–2010). Prior to that, H2 (1992–1999) was published, and Touch (1981–1986) came out even earlier. All four of them are baseball manga, for which Adachi Mitsuru is well-known. Since his debut in 1970, the mangaka has brought a variety of characters to life, at first through his characteristic drawing style, until, in 1978, he created his own story: Nine (1978–1980). Similar to his subsequent baseball manga, it’s a story about the members of a school’s baseball club navigating through the torrents of life and love. Let’s take a closer look at this coming-of-age tale in the pre-social media era.
In a baseball game, nine players make up the teams that fight each other on the diamond, which nicely explains the title of the manga. Adachi-sensei doesn’t overwhelm us with technical aspects of the sport, the complex rosters of the teams, or the various players’ skill sets. Intricate details about baseball would have been overkill anyway, because it’s not necessary to understand or maybe even like this sport to follow the plot and find the story appealing. Truth be told, keeping some of the characters apart proved to be a little difficult in the beginning; especially the ‘handsome’ guys look similar. So, I am glad the story revolves around a fixed set of eight main characters (two girls, five boys, and the coach). By the time the last main male character enters the story in chapter eight, I was already familiar with each of their specific visual traits: varying length of eyelashes and thickness of eyebrows, different hairlines, sideburns, and the like. I could therefore concentrate on the plot without fear of shipping the wrong couple. Mind you, this is crucial since there are plenty of misunderstandings and love triangles to keep track of. But before we get too tangled up, let’s start at the beginning.
A Fateful Encounter
The story begins in 1978 with a visit of the protagonist, Niimi Katsuya, and his friend, Karasawa Susumu, to a baseball game of the ever-losing team of Seishū High School. The fate of the two boys is sealed when they behold the sad and teary eyes of a beautiful girl, Nakao Yuri, who sits by herself in the bleachers and watches the game in dejected silence.
Seishū’s students are known for dedicating themselves to academic achievements rather than for their athleticism and physical prowess, and thus, the team is on a losing streak. Unable to bear the sight of a sad, beautiful girl, Karasawa declares it his mission to put a smile on her face, and he intends to achieve this by becoming a member of the baseball team. Although not as outspoken as his friend, Niimi too was stricken by the girl’s demeanor and decided to join Karasawa in this quest.
Now, at this point, it is important to let you know that neither of them had ever played baseball. Luckily, though, Seishū is not a powerhouse school and is therefore desperate for new players. The fast legs of Niimi, who was a short-distance athlete at the national level, and Karasawa’s strong shoulder (he won the jūdō prefectural tournament) are welcome additions. However, it’s not these two who give the coach a glimpse of hope of realizing his dream of going to the Kōshien. It’s the talented and successful pitcher, Kurahashi, who puts an end to the consecutive losses. Yet, his biggest contribution to the plot and the team is outside of the diamond.
The Love Doctor
The third (and last) first-year addition is the ace pitcher Kurahashi Eiji. He is the technical, strategic, and tactical mastermind of the team’s future success. But that’s not all! He is also a keen observer off-field in all matters concerning love and interpersonal relationships. As the series’ covert love doctor, he pulls the strings from the background, arranges boy–girl alone times, provides guidance to the guys, nudges the girls, and hence propels the relationships forward. This canny teen, with his ever-smiling, calm, and collected conduct, would definitely be my favorite in the story if it weren’t for his dubious actions in chapter one.
In his initial introduction on the first pages of the manga, we get to know Kurahashi as a supposed groper (chikan in Japanese) because he seemingly tried to touch a girl’s bottom in a fully packed train. As readers, we don’t actually see it, but Karasawa, who by chance took the same train, was sure of it. However, he was clearly unaware of its criminal nature. Instead, he got all excited about having a front-row seat to witness it. The thought of helping the girl didn’t cross his mind, though. Drooling and unable to contain his tongue from lolling out, he was in no state to aid her anyway.
After reassuring myself that I didn’t confuse the genre—it’s a shōnen sports manga—I read on, but wondered why Adachi-sensei chose to introduce two of his main characters this way. Maybe he wanted to draw attention to molesting and groping. (This is still a problem in Japan today.) If so, it might have been wise to tackle the issue in a different way because, in particular, Karasawa’s reaction makes light of it and doesn’t question, let alone criticize, the act itself. Yet, I mustn’t forget that we are in the late 1970s, where different norms and values might have applied to how certain concepts are portrayed.
The Value Of Baseball
The groping-act doesn’t fit Kurahashi’s considerate and gentle character at all, which he displays throughout the rest of the story, so I’m inclined to give him the benefit of the doubt. His second crime, though, can’t be ignored because he was caught red-handed by Niimi, Karasawa, and Yuri. He stole a woman’s panties off of some stranger’s clothesline and, immediately after being captured, he received a thorough scolding by the other two boys. However, not for stealing the undergarment but for his wimpy behavior toward his authoritative father, which is also presented as the root cause of his reprehensible behavior. You see, Kurahashi’s father forbade his son to continue playing baseball in high school. But, as we come to understand, baseball is a way for male adolescents to let off steam and vent their youthful energy. Karasawa explains: “It’s because he doesn’t vent all the energy building up inside him that he does such filthy stuff!” ‘Venting energy’ seems to be of particular importance since it’s mentioned several times. It could point to a discourse that sprung up in the 1970s and 1980s. At that time, it was suggested that participation in the schools’ extracurricular sports club (undō bukatsudō in Japanese) could curb students’ misbehavior, such as smoking or drinking alcohol, and even prevent delinquency.
Naturally, Niimi and Karasawa couldn’t stand by idly while the talented pitcher turned into a fully fledged criminal; thus, they took matters into their own hands and forced father and son to reconcile. They immediately walked to the nearest phone booth (remember, it’s 1978) and called up the father. The parent angrily rushed to the scene and scolded his son for thinking about taking up baseball again. (The panties were already long forgotten…) Niimi’s father suddenly showed up and joined the dispute, and the two parents had a grown-up talk about the true value of partaking in an extracurricular sports club activity. And this isn’t necessarily to become Japan’s Nr. 1, as many sports manga make believe. No! Niimi’s father reminded the other parent: It’s about acquiring character traits that are needed to deal with the harsh realities grown-up life throws at you: perseverance and guts.
In fact, school sports clubs fulfill a multitude of functions, whereby parents, teachers, and students might have slightly different views. Roughly speaking, the clubs are educational devices; that is, they are supposed to provide life lessons for the students in various areas so that, once they leave school, they become valuable members of society. After reminiscing about his own baseball club experiences and a heart-wrenching plea from his son, the father yields. Saved from a future in jail, Kurahashi could now focus on what he did best: pitching and ‘love doctoring.’ By the way, we never find out if he returned the panties.
The Future Wives
With all the boys now on the baseball team and on the right track, let’s get back to the main part of the story—the romantic relationships between the various couples-to-be. I’d like to pick up where I left off earlier, with the sad but beautiful girl who captivated Niimi’s and Karasawa’s hearts, Nakao Yuri. As it turns out, Yuri is the daughter of the baseball coach and also the team’s manager. She is a gentle, caring, hard working, and rather timid girl. She doesn’t refuse her father’s requests and conforms to the pushy demands of her other admirer, Yamanaka, who is also Niimi’s chief rival in love. Unable to say no or clearly state her feelings, she finds herself in inconvenient situations and is forced to wait patiently for her true love, Niimi, to approach her. Only once did she try to articulate her feelings, and the consequences were … well… ‘unexpected.’ (I’ll get back to this a bit later.) Still, Yuri is admired by all the young men for her character and her beauty, and will be—so we are told repeatedly—a good wife. Consequently, this is the essence of her character and her role in the story: devoted to supporting the male lead(s).
But Yuri isn’t the only girl hoping for Niimi’s affection. Her main rival for his love is Yasuda Yukimi, and she is the total opposite of Yuri. Yukimi is loud, outspoken, confident, and demanding. She is also an expert in the deliberate use of her female charms on men. She offers her time (going on dates) and her body (promises of a kiss) as a reward for various tasks. As confident and independent as she is, Yukimi, nonetheless, has only one thing on her mind, and that is to gain Niimi’s love and become his wife. To that end, she too does her best to support him with cooking and cheerleading.
Judging from the majority of girls who interact with the main male characters, one thing becomes clear: The late 1970s must have been a dangerous time for a young woman to live in because, at some point in the story, they are all in need of saving. Harassed by horny delinquents, or confronted with some other emotional, physical, or environmental challenge, the damsels in distress require rescuing by Niimi and his peers.
When You Truly Care For Someone…
Now, as you might have noticed, the manga presents a rather clear-cut image of the two genders. And there are quite a few dialogues dedicated to what makes a good, sensible woman (or a frivolous one) and what makes a good man. Young manga readers of the late 1970s and early 1980s were thus informed about what to look out for in their future husbands and wives. Half a century has passed since the manga’s publication, and times have changed—or so I thought. Watching the anime Mix: Meisei Story, I realized that the depiction of gender roles still leans on the tension between the male love rivals and the females who support them as club manager or little sister. I assume this is due to sticking to a successful concept and not because of an unyielding attitude about appropriate gender roles. Nonetheless, change is still noticeable, primarily in the amount and type of fan service. Mix: Meisei Story provides plenty of scenes at the school’s pool, including close-ups. Nine, on the other hand, limits its ‘bikini service’ to one outing to the ocean, without close-ups. Readers’ tastes change too and need to be catered to, I guess.
The charm of Nine lies in the captivating way the characters are portrayed and their relationships with each other. This is what makes it an enjoyable read, even today. However, there is one scene that left me baffled, to put it mildly; one that would be hard to swallow for most present-day readers.
When Yuri finally summoned the courage to talk openly about her feelings to Niimi, Yamanaka’s grade school-aged sister stubbornly refused to give those two some alone time, despite repeated pleas from Yuri. Naturally, Yuri got angry and shouted at the child to get lost, who then started to cry. Refusing to apologize for her outburst, Niimi, taking pity on the crying child, slapped Yuri in the face.
Accompanied by an abysmal drop in Niimi’s approval rating, I stared open-mouthed and wide-eyed at this image. Honestly, I was dumbstruck by his behavior and concluded that from now on, there would be one less couple to worry about because plot-wise, there’s no coming back from this. Hitting a woman in the face (or anywhere, actually) is a no-go. However, I felt even more bewildered when Yuri presented her view on the affair a few pages further on. Meeting Niimi on the street a couple of days later, she asked him: “You hit me because it was me, didn’t you? You wouldn’t have done it, had it been another girl, right?” Deliberating on the fact that he really couldn’t have cared less had it been another girl, Niimi assented, and Yuri closed the discussion with, “Good! Then don’t apologize!” Having thusly reconciled, Yuri gave Niimi his Christmas present, a self-knit scarf, because he is always cold, prompting him to conclude that she will make a good wife.
Before reading this manga, I wondered why Nine was often left out, whenever Adachi-sensei’s most notable works on baseball were discussed. And contrary to the other manga I mentioned in the beginning, Nine hasn’t been licensed in English (as far as I know). I can only guess at the reasons, but I could imagine that the slapping incident and, in particular, the subsequent conversation might be one of them.
After all this talk about crime, romantic relationships, and gender roles, let’s turn to my favorite part of the story: the game of baseball.
Those of you acquainted with baseball in Japan will know that the pinnacle of high school baseball is participation in the National High School Baseball Championship, the so-called Kōshien. For about two weeks under the searing August-sun, high schoolers try to best each other and make it to the top. The tournament takes place at the Hanshin Kōshien Stadium, hence its nickname. This year (2023), it will be held for the 105th time, starting on August 6. What makes the Kōshien the epitome of youthful sportsmanship and why it is so popular among players and spectators is a topic for another post.
The boys in Nine don’t exhibit a fiery passion for this championship. Only a single person truly longs for participation at this celebrated competition, and this is Seishū’s coach. 17 years ago, he set foot in the stadium, and he wishes nothing more than to re-experience this exhilarating feeling. But if you think this desire would turn him into a stern and commanding coach like Kataoka Tesshin in Diamond no Ace, you are wrong. Except for some occasional outbursts, he is a laid-back and undemanding coach, giving his charge enough time to engage in baseball-unrelated issues.
Of course, there are baseball games between the love rivals and some other, mostly nameless, opponents. These moments of thrill and excitement, filled with the tension of uncertainty as to whether Kurahashi will strike the batter out or Niimi will make it to base, had my undivided attention. Having chosen this manga because it is about baseball, I would have loved to see more sports-related stuff. Particularly because Adachi-sensei’s visualization of the game is gripping. Through his drawing style, I could practically feel the gust of wind on my face when the ball whooshed through the air.
Boys Will Be Boys
In general, the diamond functions primarily as the battlefield for the love rivals, with one exception: the pitcher Kurahashi. He plays ball for the sake of the game. But then again, he hasn’t lost his heart to a woman, which is given as the reason for his exceptionally good pitches. Yamanaka, Yuri’s admirer, explains that Kurahashi is so good at pitching because his mind is not burdened with thoughts about a beloved woman. However, the majority of the boys have their eyes on something other than the ball: the girls. For most of the boys in Nine, the presence of a girl is enough to get them fired up. They are thus distraction and motivation alike.
Well, the boys are in the middle of puberty, so it doesn’t come as a surprise that their emotions and desires run wild. Yet, at times, it seemed as if they were entirely at the mercy of their rising testosterone levels, willing to sacrifice not only baseball but also friendships as well as personal health and safety for the sake of gaining affection from their potential brides.
Lessons On Life
Baseball provides the stage setting for the youthful banter and tangled love-lives; but the message of the manga is an entirely different one.
Adachi-sensei puts ‘his’ kids in tight spots; he lets them make mistakes and suffer from heartbreak, but he also grants them the joy of friendship and the experience of first love. All to convey lessons on morality and life. Accompanying the boys and girls in their three high school years, we learn that it’s wrong to jump to conclusions or make assumptions based on appearances, or that you can’t force your love on someone. We are educated about the importance of facing challenges head-on and that winning (in sports) isn’t everything. That being said, the story thrives on the lack of communication between the characters. Many of the misunderstandings, complications, and prolonged uncertainties could have been avoided if the boys and girls had just shared their thoughts and feelings. So, this could be the most important lesson of all: talk to each other!
From Past To Present
Besides learning how to operate a landline phone, the manga gives you some insights into the values that were conveyed to its young readership at the time. Being aware that it was written (and drawn) almost 50 years ago, helps to put the few questionable scenes into the ‘right’ context. Once this is accomplished, you will definitely enjoy reading it, even if you aren’t a baseball fan.
Additionally, Adachi-sensei turns away from the hard-core supokon narrative with its grinding training regimes and unyielding willpower, and puts the emphasis on the youths’ emotional and moral development. Personally, I’m not really into romance but rather go for grit and nail-biting action. But the youthful innocence of the characters, and their struggles to make sense of their budding feelings were told and drawn in such a charming way that it tugged at my heartstrings. And in a way, it’s still a relatable story today—after all, we all went through puberty, right?
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