Three things in life are certain: death, taxes, and the frequent cancellation of new Weekly Shonen Jump series. The latest manga to lose its place in the competitive magazine was also one of my favorites in recent memory: Nine Dragons’ Ball Parade, written by Mikiyasu Kamada and illustrated by Ashibi Fukui. A baseball manga, the series followed a fledgling team of outcast players as they banded together in pursuit of fun and their dreams. Though it lacked polish, Nine Dragons was one of my favorites to read each week as well as a good example of why I love sports manga to begin with.
The series immediately caught my attention back in February with its great first chapter. In it we met Tamao Azukida, an upcoming high school first-year who’s trained for years to make the Hakuo High baseball team. Not only has he worked out to strengthen his own physical stamina, but he’s also gathered data on all his cohorts to stay knowledgeable of potential rivals and determine how to effectively play against them. When the time comes for Hakuo’s tryouts all his work pays off in a practice game victory achieved thanks to his deep knowledge of the other team’s skills.
Unfortunately, this isn’t enough to earn him a spot on Hakuo’s team. As the coach informs Tamao, Hakuo already has a team of analysts who provide the sort of data he utilizes. They’re more interested in enlisting players to take orders, not devise strategies themselves. It’s a matter of Tamao’s hard work not only failing to get him what he wants, but actively being cited as the reason for his rejection.
From a conflict standpoint, it’s a great storytelling decision. Here we have a Jump protagonist who lacks neither passion nor work ethic but still, that’s not enough. This sort of lack of control and coming up against a wall has been central to many great sports manga moments— take Kiyoko’s monologue about embracing sudden, unpreventable changes in Haikyu!!, for instance. By kicking things off with such a failure, Nine Dragons primes itself to immediately follow up said failure with the classic balm to heal all wounds: continuing forward with friends by your side.
Chief among Tamao’s friends is Tao Ryudo, a laid back pitcher who he meets at Hakuo’s tryouts and who pops a proposal to him at the end of chapter one: that they should form their own baseball team. This premise drives the rest of the series, with Tao and Tamao seeking out new players to expand the team’s roster and eventually play some actual baseball with. While these other players are likable its the founding duo who have the strongest dynamic throughout thanks to all their contrasts: raw strength and pitching ability versus analytics and strategy, an easygoing confidence versus the more mile-a-minute thoughts of someone who has to compensate for lower skills with a keen eye and mind.
As the group slowly expands one by one, attention is paid to core concepts of friendship and mutual aid. When the team seeks out star batter Yoshitaka Tsurugi, they even agree to help out working at Tsurugi’s family’s store to make his responsibilities more manageable and allow him the time to play alongside them. This consistent ethos of camaraderie goes a long way toward making Nine Dragons a fun, feel-good read even when the unstable nature of publication in Jump leads to some pacing issues.
It also shows a level of trust between the teammates that I’m frankly jealous of. When I was in seventh grade, I ran track and field. I enjoyed it and I was good at it, too. I wasn’t a prodigy, mind you, and I was never going to be a star player, but I had fun and even made it to regionals. Even in a relatively individual sport, I still formed friendships with my teammates and enjoyed our time together. When the season finished up that year, I had every intention of returning to the team in eighth grade.
I did not. My interest didn’t wane, and I would have loved to continue running. But in the year between seasons I had come out of the closet, and taking part on a sports team, putting myself in a position where I would be consistently surrounded by my largely homophobic would-be teammates, most of whom were physically stronger than me? It simply would never have been safe. I gave up track, and any hope of ever getting to participate in traditional sports again.
Enter then my fondness for sports manga and for Nine Dragons. I love the genre and this series in particular for many of the same reasons anyone else would: the themes of following dreams, of working hard toward achieving a goal and reaping the benefits of said work. Add in a great artist like Ashibi and you get exciting stories laced with action, humor, and hope— perfect for reading, as I do, on lunch breaks or after a tiring day at work.
It’s this feel-good ethos that I’ll miss most from Nine Dragons. Some of the teammates butted heads and had prickly relationships, but they were still friends and their personality quirks felt like just that: quirks, sometimes irritating but nothing to hide or run away from. From all-star aces to more unassuming all-rounders, everyone on the team does their part, and even the more frequently irritating or immature members of the team get their earned moments of support and affirmation from their peers.
None of this is to say that Nine Dragons is an underrated should-be-classic, by any means. The one-by-one nature of the character recruitment got a bit slow and repetitive, and the series’ quick cancellation prevented the creators from fully developing all the plot threads and rival characters they introduced. Nonetheless, this was series about a group of kids who loved baseball and who practiced hard and supported each other, pushing forward as a group even when they had been rejected previously as individuals. Regardless of the early ending, this tone of positivity shined through and was infectious throughout.
And for me, once a gay kid who had to give all that up? Who had the limits of my belonging to a team tested and broken? It’s a sentiment I doubt I’ll ever get tired of, in spite of my own loss, or maybe even because of it. I haven’t played on a sports team in over a decade, but Nine Dragons made me want to step up to bat.
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