Adachi Mitsuru's "H2" is a delightful and simple tale of two young men finding their place in the game of baseball. It is also a testament to why the sports genre is one of the most powerful in storytelling.
Known for his work on "Touch", "Katsu", and more recently, "Cross Game", Adachi Mitsuru has rightfully earned his place as one of manga's most influential artists. People may complain that his stories are merely copy-pasted from one another (just how many baseball manga has he created so far?) but there is a reason for why he rarely strays from the usual: nobody else can combine the slice-of-life and sports genres as elegantly as he can. H2 is just another reason why the Adachi Mitsuru brand of storytelling is so damn successful.
The story follows the rivalry between ace pitcher Kunimi Hiro and his best friend, Tachibana Hideo. After receiving a medical diagnosis and realising that his shoulder is about to break, Hiro begrudgingly gives up on pitching and moves to a high school without a baseball team. A sudden turn of events brings back his interest in the sport, and a story in the newspaper reveals that the doctor who made him give up on playing was recently arrested for being unlicensed. Hiro's shoulder had no problems to begin with-- he can pitch again without worry. Rather than transfer away to another school, he decides to turn Senkawa's weak baseball club into a full-fledged team, resolved to meet Hideo in the Koshien.
The real battle is not in the sport itself, however. The girl who Hiro loves is also Hideo's girlfriend, and the three of them all know it. While Hideo trusts Hiro enough to not cross a line, Hiro still regrets not falling for her earlier. As childhood friends, weren't Hiro and Hikari the two that were meant for each other... ?
Where H2 succeeds most is in its characterisation. The two players, as talented as they are, are never defined by the age old format of 'good guy vs. bad guy'. Both of them are inherently flawed people. The relationship between Hiro and Hideo feels natural and believable, and their skill in the sport is never justified on the basis of superhuman ability and secret moves. Even characters that are initially antagonistic (Kine) are developed into likeable characters by the end of the story. One of the hardest things to accomplish when writing a character is to turn an enemy into a friend, but Adachi goes a step further by making this development feel natural, too.
Considering the massive size of the cast (dozens of players per team, and many more in between), it isn't a surprise that some of them are overlooked. Several members of Hiro's team are sadly forgotten as soon as their story arc has ended. Fortunately, the matches are kept interesting as each opposing team is given a distinct personality. In the case of Senkawa's main rival, Eikyo, the opposing coach and starting pitcher provide a conflict that cleverly contrasts the nature of Hiro's pitching. You grow to despise Eiyko over time - you want them to lose, you want them to fail and eat the dirt. There is an actual reason to care about the matches beyond the usual "protagonist-dude must win".
There is a sense of suspense to each match that is so rare in other sports manga. Matches will be lost when you fully expect them to win, and matches will be won when you are prepared for a loss. You cannot ever fully predict what will happen. Adachi carefully foreshadows and places red herrings throughout the manga, though never enough to result in a sudden plot twist.
H2 also has a... unique sense of humour. Many times the characters will break the fourth wall (i.e. complaining about only being given one panel to talk) and Adachi will often make references to his previous works and his current state of mind. He even made himself a character in the story, which is... utterly bizarre. The most hilarious moment in the entire story occurs as Hiro mentions his perfect vision, then squints into the lazy blobs drawn in the stands and makes a shocked face. Yeah, the author actually made fun of his own artwork. The self-deprecation is comedy gold.
The artwork of H2 is simplistic yet graceful. The mute panels of the scenery effectively immerse the reader in the setting, and the story is carefully told through imagery rather than infodump. Even during the dramatic scenes, the mangaka respects the audience's intelligence by allowing them to understand what happened through the artwork. The action scenes during the baseball matches are also made easy for the eye to follow as a result of the simplistic art style. There is never a moment where you must pause and think "Huh, how did that happen?"
At 34 volumes long, H2 is the longest manga I have ever read. But it almost felt as if it was too short. There are no filler arcs, no unnecessary chapters. Every panel in the story has a meaning and purpose, whether it be to develop the characters or to simply make the reader laugh. My only complaint is that it all ended too suddenly. Considering how perfectly-paced the entire manga was, it's a bit strange that everything was wrapped up in a single chapter. It needed a few more than that, or better yet, an entire volume. We are left with assumptions rather than conclusions. It shouldn't have been that way.
Regardless of whether you are interested in the sports and slice-of-life genres, H2 is a must-read. It is an absolute joy to read and perfectly harmonises entertainment with quality. I had to purposely slow myself down because I didn't want the story to end, and that is perhaps the greatest compliment I can give to a manga. Adachi Mitsuru can confidently continue to do what he does best-- delight his audience.