I know I'm a bit late to the party. A whole year, to be exact. Like everyone else, I was caught up in chasing after Higashi no Eden like an excited Labrador, tongue flapping wildly with drips of saliva rolling off. Pity that the chase ended futilely when the series decided to go the GTA-flying-cars-cheat route, and soar into space, thinking that assimilating moon logic would be the best way to wrap up what was up until that point a stunning conspiracy thriller.
The point is, Cross Game flew under my radar like a well-tossed slider as I'm sure it did everyone else's. Yeah, I was vaguely aware of the positive clamor from critics, but sports and I have always maintained a pleasantly estranged relationship and I would have been damned if giving baseball a 2-D animated makeover was going to wring the slightest curious glance out of me, much less make me want to leap across the lightyear separating us and start caressing it gently.
One episode (and several tissues) later, and I already found myself begging forgiveness for a lifetime of aloofness.
Cross Game is of the best series' that I have ever picked up and I have no doubt that it will finish as one of my top anime of all time. Despite possessing humble roots in slice-of-life and sports, Cross Game nevertheless blossoms with an emotional fragrance that is every bit as meticulous as it is intoxicating, but never too potent. Think Whisper of the Heart with, well, baseball.
For the most part, Cross Game is about simplicity. Simple art, simple animation, simple character designs, simple background melodies, a simple plot, and a simple, quiet atmosphere. The series is quite easy on the eyes and the brain, seemingly making it kids-only territory. That is, until you realize that while kids will find there is plenty to enjoy, older viewers will be sinking their teeth in the juicy layers of complexity at the series' core.
Put simply, the characters in Cross Game are unbelievable. So rarely are characters portrayed in such a realistic fashion that it's hard to pin a single solid stereotype onto their persona without lengthy footnotes.
It would be wrong, for instance, to suggest that protagonist Kou is simply rash and naïve, because while he has impulsive tendencies, he's still just your average, sympathetic everystudent hell-bent on fulfilling a promise. And while Aoba is arguably a tsundere, her striking resilience and the profound emotional conflict that she shoulders with Kou ensure that her tsun and dere rotations (which are refreshingly understated) don't run like clockwork. She too acts like an actual teenager with real insecurities and never once sells out to the puerile fanbase who slobber over every blushingly tsunderific frame of animation.
Likewise, Azuma is technically the stoic, subzero, poker-faced foil, but he also radiates with warm, calming reassurance.
Above all else, however, it is the character development that is truly praiseworthy. Wonderfully nuanced and natural, were this live-action, I would say that it's as if the camera was MIA during the entirety of the series. Characterization never dribbles unnaturally out the mouths of characters and either gathers steadily granule-by-granule through everyday interactions or is delivered like a wallop to the nose in a tremendously heartwrenching or uplifting climax.
And Cross Game is uplifting. These are real characters, driven by genuine determination and the desire to watch them interact, grow, overcome, and succeed is overwhelming.
I'm 25 episodes in and enjoying every minute of the series. If I had to wax anal, however, I would say that it could use a bit more direction as some side stories seem arbitrarily intercut such as the Risa-audition episode. I guess some people may find that the baseball matches get shortchanged, but I've been lapping up every minute of every game, particularly the most recent match as Kou and Seishuu trolled the hell out of Sannou during the first innings. Suffice to say, I am thoroughly onboard as Seishuu moves further along in this second-half.
In summary: The characters are amazing, the backstories are beautifully fleshed-out, the dialogue is judicious and punchy, the atmosphere is mellow, and the baseball matches are actually compelling. So far, so epic.