I want to write a little about Ookiku Furikabutte, a Japanese manga (also made into an anime series) by Asa Higuchi. In short, it’s about high school baseball, it’s nineteen volumes long so far and not even close to finished (I hope; also, this is by no means an uncommon length for a manga series), the art is somewhat on the crude side, but obviously as a deliberate style choice rather than through lack of talent, it’s funny and touching and realistic (mostly) and goes into more detail about baseball games than even I can deal with.
The story centers on the baseball team at Nishiura High School, which has never had a baseball team before; hence there are only ten team members, plus student manager, supervising teacher, and coach, and all the players are sophomores (Japanese high schools are 10th-12th grade). Their ace pitcher is Ren Mihashi, who makes up for slow pitching speeds with incredible control, and comes in completely unsure of himself because of the way his teammates in junior high treated him. Catcher Takaya Abe, strong-willed and short-tempered, recognizes Mihashi’s gifts and commits himself to getting the best out of him, never mind that Mihashi is absolutely terrified of him most of the time. The others are neat people too, and they come together quickly into a strong team, both on the diamond and in their mutual bonds; I like best the story lines which show us the team just hanging out together.
We also get to know numerous other teams who are Nishiura’s opponents; honestly I have trouble keeping them straight, but each has its own personalities and its own issues. The two I don’t lose track of are Motoki Haruna, a brilliant pitcher who played with Abe in junior high school and parted less than amicably with him, and his laid-back, observant, only moderately gifted catcher, Kyohei Akimaru, one of my favorites (I have a thing about catchers in glasses). They turn up in and out of Nishiura’s orbit, following their own story.
Anyway, there you have the basic outline. At the moment in the series, Nishiura and Haruna’s school, Musashino Daiichi, have both lost in the summer prefectural tournament, meaning their hopes for the national tournament (Koshien) will have to wait till next year; they’re getting busy training again. Volume 19 is full of delicious bits, but—well—a lot of people write fanfiction about this series slashing any number of the main characters (mostly Mihashi/Abe and Haruna/Akimaru), and I have to say this volume makes it hard to NOT see them that way, even if one wanted to ;) . Examples follow.
Just for one thing, apart from Mihashi and Abe sharing a hotel room (on a team trip, two beds, very innocent), we get the two of them alone in a room while Abe has his shirt off TWICE in one book. Once is in the hotel room, Abe emerging from the shower with a towel across his shoulders; the other is in the school weight room earlier on. Thanks to Abe’s one-track baseball mind and Mihashi’s, um, quirkiness, I would not say that sexual tension was a prime feature of either scene, but it’s entertaining. Oh, and at the team retreat we get the endearingly domestic scene of Abe waking Mihashi early so they can make breakfast for everyone (and it turns out Mihashi’s the one who knows what he’s doing in the kitchen, he even gets up the nerve to yell at Abe about dumplings).
What else? Abe and Mihashi go to talk to Haruna (with Akimaru standing by) just after the latter has lost his big game. Abe and Haruna end up yelling in each other’s faces, rehashing the past, with Mihashi wide-eyed and Akimaru obviously taking mental notes; and then the scene ends on a silly note with Mihashi blurting out “Haruna-san, c-c-can I feel your muscles?”
Akimaru’s teammates, rhapsodizing about how playing on a team with Haruna has made them feel they can aim for the sky; and Kyohei Akimaru standing there while they talk at him, wondering “How could they think I make a difference to him? Teamwork…confidence…dreaming big…?!” as if he’d never heard the words before and wasn’t sure he wanted to hear them now. This is both why I like Akimaru so much and why I think this is such a good manga in the first place; individuality which doesn’t fit into any of the expected patterns.
I want to talk about the four Melendy books by Elizabeth Enright: The Saturdays, The Four-Storey Mistake, Then There Were Five, and Spiderweb for Two. These concern the varied adventures of the four Melendy children, Mona, Rush, Miranda (Randy), and Oliver, growing up in New York and then the countryside in the 1940s. Elizabeth Enright does something that should really be very difficult in the Melendy books, and makes it look easy: she tells her stories from the viewpoint (in tight third-person) of children ranging from six to sixteen, without ever lowering her narration to become simplistic or sentimental or limited, and likewise without ever dragging the reader out of the perspective of the child in question. “Child” seems like the wrong word: Enright’s Melendys are people, among whose characteristics are being eight or eleven or fourteen, but who are never simply defined that way.
They grow up a little at a time over the four books, and this is most visible in the youngest, Oliver, who begins as a six-year-old with the limited perspective and abilities thereof, and by the last book is tough, humorous and capable, well able to skewer his dreamy sister’s flights of fancy. Artistic, accident-prone Randy may be the least practical of the family, but she is brave (going out to Meeker’s farm with Rush in the middle of the night to investigate the fire) and never lets her romancing blind her to the realities of life. Like her older siblings, she understands that artistic brilliance, for instance, comes through hard work. (Randy’s arts are drawing and dancing, but somehow it’s easy to imagine that she will be the one who grows up a writer and records her family’s exploits as we are reading about them, like Titty Walker in the Swallows and Amazons books.)
Mona, the oldest, is a genuinely gifted actress whose family prudently keeps her down to earth, giving her scope to express her talent without making her into a spoiled princess. The closest to the adult world, her share of the books decreases gradually as they continue. Rush, though, holds center stage (or shares it with Randy) through at least the third book. A polymath who enjoys physical activity as much as reading and who looks forward to a career as pianist and composer, Rush’s intellectual and practical curiosity as well as his unfailingly sarcastic good humor are among the things that most make the books come alive.
Rush provides two of my favorite moments in the whole series. One comes late in The Four-Storey Mistake, when Rush reports on a disastrous piano lesson he has just given: “Judge Laramy, I just socked your son. I socked him pretty hard…” to which the judge replies “If socking is included in your technique of education, well, that’s none of my business as long as they really learn.”
The other is near the end of Then There Were Five, when all four Melendys are packed into their old surrey to meet their father at the train station. Willy Sloper, their handyman, is driving (how could I not mention Willy earlier? Unflappable, Brooklyn-accented, able to turn his hand to anything, and with a fondness for tootling on the recorder) and reflects aloud on the way people’s characters settle as they grow older, leading to being “farsighted when you look at the paper, and kinda nearsighted when you look at the truth—“ Rush picks up and elaborates enjoyably on the theme, only to be shocked by Willy’s peaceful declaration that “you ain’t got no character at all yet…All of you. Just a lot of little jellyfish.” Rush, Mona, and Randy plunge into silent and serious analyses of their own characters, while Oliver placidly contemplates fishing.
I loved the Melendy books as a kid, but it’s particularly delightful to find that they are still enjoyable as an adult, with precise characterization and satisfying, natural yet lively dialogue, and an authorial voice which moves from humor to serious emotion with a steady, subtle hand; full of details of time and place which glow; and with just enough plot arcs to hold the discrete episodes together. I could go into endless details—Rush’s opera-going experience in New York, the tower room at Mrs. Oliphant’s country house, the manicurist’s escape to New York City which she tells to Mona, Randy’s creek-found diamond and what she does with it, the alligator, the four windows of the cupola, the old newspapers on the walls of the Office, Mona and Rush and Randy with their feet in the stream, Oliver’s caterpillars, Jasper Titus’ cakes, Rush and Mark’s terrifying late-night adventure, Randy and Oliver’s detective adventures… so wonderful. More people should read these.