Author: Higuchi Asa
My Christmas review (though a bit late) is dedicated to a non-BL, baseball manga which has just claimed the 2006 Tezuka Osamu Cultural Award. I’m usually not into sports manga because most of the time, they just focus on techniques and competition and before long, they enter the endless loop that lead to nowhere but boredom. Ookikufuri Kabutte (abb. as Oofuri) is different because its focus is not on techniques so much as the psychological conditions within the players and also between the players.
The story begins with Mihashi Ren transferring to Nishiura Public High and is looking for a club to join. He is soon coerced into the baseball club by Momoe Maria the director (but not the teacher). Mihashi at first has no intention to join the baseball club because when he was playing baseball back in his old middle school Mitsuboshi Gakuen, he was bullied. Mihashi is the grandson of the owner of Mitsuboshi and with that connection, he managed to keep the top-pitcher position in the team. However, the rest of the teammates felt he did not have the ability to be the top-pitcher and also blamed him for causing the team to lose all the matches. Those sad memories stripped all Mihashi’s confidence off and left him with the decision to quit baseball and to transfer to a new school in a different town. At Nishiura, there is no formal baseball team and so Mihashi is somehow dragged into the baseball team. As he pitches the ball, the catcher Abe Takaya notices the way Mihashi pitches is unique. Instead of pitching fastballs (as most middle or high school pitchers do), all the balls Mihashi pitches are breaking balls and changeups. He recognizes Mihashi’s ability but Mihashi himself still insists he is no good (damepii) or damena pitcher. At the same time, the batter Hanai Azusa also refuses to join because the director is a woman (though Momoe has superhuman energy and stunned Hanai with just one hit). In the end, Abe provokes Hanai by saying there’s no way Hanai can hit Mihashi’s ball. Hanai is pissed off and accepts the challenge. Abe asks Mihashi to follow his directions and pitches the way he signals him to. Mihashi agrees because Abe says he will make Mihashi a star pitcher. In the end, Hanai can’t hit and the team then roughly forms. Still, Mihashi’s lack of confidence is a big problem and so Momoe suggests a tournament between their school and Mihashi’s former school – Mitsuboshi. To train for the tournament, the team goes to train in the mountains. Mihashi is still lacks confidence and Abe gets angry at times and even wants to leave at one moment. However, Momoe manages to make him stay behind. She also tells him to use the same method she used on him to boost Mihashi’s confidence. The first match against Mitsuboshi is not easy because it’s not just a game between two baseball teams, but also a battle to restore Mihashi’s confidence and to make him the real pitcher of Nishiura. I won’t go into the details because (1) it’ll spoil the fun and (2) I’m not so familiar with baseball. However, one thing it’s important, i.e. while the match is going on, we are also looking at:
(a) the relationship between Mihashi, Abe, Tajima, Hanai, and the rest of the teammates at Nishiura.
(b) the relationship between Kanou, Hatake, and Oda, and the rest of the teammates at Mitsuboshi.
(c) the fact that Kanou has never considered him a better pitcher than Mihashi.
(d) the fact that Hatake understands his own fault and apologizes in the end to Mihashi.
In fact, I think the apology in the end and how Hatake tips off Mihashi his weakness is quite touching. Baseball isn’t just about winning and losing. It’s about friendship and team spirit.
I learn about this manga when I hear it’s going to be animated by the team behind xxxholic & Hachikuro. Normally, I don’t like sports manga because they tend to focus too much on the techniques and competition they neglect the human factor. Recent sports manga in Jump such as Tennis no oujisama or Eyeshield 21 are typical examples. To my surprise though, this manga is not just about sports but sportsmanship as well. In particular, the interactions between Abe and Mihashi is very interesting. Mihashi suffers from a severe lack of confidence. On the other hand, Abe has a strong belief in his own values and enjoys it when people rely on him. However, he appreciates reliance too much that on the long run he makes Mihashi over dependent on his directions and strategies. Aside from the two main characters, the relationships between other these two and the other members of the team, such as Tajima (the short but genius batter) and Hanai also get more and more interesting as the manga develops. The first game is a battle for Mihashi’s confidence and a pitcher for Nishiura. However, the focus is not only on Nishiura. We can also see how the opponent team suffer from problems, especially when no one in that team (except for Kanou) seems to appreciate and recognize Mihashi’s strength and hard work.
He’s a genius in a way because instead of dividing the target into the usual four divisions, he has 9 divisions. However, he doesn’t trust his own ability, no matter how many times other try to convince him of his ability. Having said that though, he is very obedient and will follow Abe’s orders (even when he thinks it’s not working). There’s no doubt about Mihashi’s ability as a pitcher but no matter what kind of genius you are, as long as you can’t overcome the psychological barriers, there’s no chance of winning. Although now Mihashi has basically overcome the problem of trust and communication between pitcher and catcher (his biggest problem in middle school), he actually faces another problem. Since he gradually becomes more and more dependent on Abe, there is a risk that if this trust shatters (for whatever reason), the team will be in grave trouble. I think that might also be a key to the climax in this manga.
In most baseball manga I have read before, the focus is on the batter or pitcher, very seldom is the credits given to the catcher as much as in Oofuri. Even though Mihashi is the main character, Abe actually has the control in the manga and he’s also the one handling most of the conversation. Overall, Abe is very calm, intelligent, and likes to take care of others or for others to depend on him. However, he sometimes overdoes it and also is too full of himself. If he’s not overly confident, he might have noticed the changes in Mitsuboshi’s teacher’s strategy earlier and would not have allowed Oda to hit the ball or Hatake to do that homerun.
Hanai & Takaji are batters and both of them compensate each other instead of rival each other. Hanai is tall and has a nice build and is also a good batter. However, in terms of batting sense, he is not as good as Takaji. Takaji is almost a genius when it comes to batting sense, like he can take on Kanou’s fork pitch with just one hit. However, he’s a bit smaller in build so he can’t do homeruns. At this moment, it’s still a bit early to see what happens to the two but I’m sure they’ll mature over the course of the manga.
Kanou failed to be the main pitcher in middle school because Mihashi wouldn’t get off the spot and Hatake, who always felt Kanou was better, also blamed Mihashi for that. However, Kanou really understood that Mihashi was a better pitcher than himself because of his stamina as well as his ability to control the ball (thus capable of four types of breaking balls). During the match, Kanou pointed out Hatake’s failure to appreciate Mihashi and thus was the cause of the team’s losses. Frankly, Hatake supported Kanou so much during the middle school years and what Kanou said was a sort of betrayal. Still, Hatake was not stubborn and he accepted his own fault and tried hard. That allowed the team to restart again. Of course, the presence of Oda is also important because he did not know a thing about Mitsuboshi as he’s a transferstudent.
Haruna Motoki is the last character I’ll introduce in this review because he’s a very important figure in Abe’s life. If the Mitsuboshi team shattered Mihashi’s confidence, then Haruna has an equally destructive impact on Abe. Haruna and Abe used to be pitcher-catcher partners in middle school. However, Haruna is a very strange person. Since he is very scared of incurring injuries, he has a rule that he will only pitch 80 balls each game regardless of the outcome. Abe, who aims only at victory and wants to play everygame with his heart, hates Haruna for his selfishness but there is nothing he can do because Haruna is really good and can pitch at a very high speed. When Abe meets Mihashi and sees how hard he tries even there is no return, he is touched and that’s why he insists on Mihashi. However, Haruna still wants Abe to be his catcher because Haruna understands just how good and special Abe is. The future relationship between Abe, Mihashi, and Haruna should be quite interesting.
I love this manga for a lot of reasons. First, it’s got a perfect balance between the technical and psychological side of baseball. The only other manga that dealt with the psychological configuration of the players (as I can recall) so deeply is TOUCH (the everlasting classic). However, TOUCH takes more on the romantic and personal side whereas Oofuri focuses more on team interactions. As a result, there is almost NO WOMAN in this manga except Momoe and the manager. However, Momoe is so HOT sometimes you just forget she’s a woman. Second, the absence of woman means ENDLESS POSSIBILITIES for bl fangirls :D. In fact, I already have A WHOLE LIST of potential pairings but of naturally, the triangle – Haruna, Abe, & Mihashi – is the most OBVIOUS XD. This manga reminds me a lot of Hachikuro, especially the mood and the atmosphere. It’s all about YOUTH, SWEAT, and FRIENDSHIP! I HIGHLY RECOMMEND THIS MANGA!!! It can easily enter the ranks as Hachikuro and Nodame Cantible.
Director: Mizushima Tsutomu (xxxholic)
Script: Kuroda Yousuke (Hachikuro)
Character Design: Yoshida Takahiko (Hachikuro)
Production: A-1 Studio (Aniplex)