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Saturday, July 08, 2006

Film Review: Kokoyakyu High School Baseball


Before watching the POV documentary on high school baseball in Japan, I had the usual sense of dread and foreboding. Namely, that when those not familiar with Japan or Japanese attempt to deconstruct some aspect of that country’s culture for an audience of American college students or movie-goers in a small urban art cinema house, they will completely screw it up. The director will miss linguistic and cultural clues. It will be more blue-eyed nonsense of the “Man, you won't believe what I saw on my trip to Tokyo” variety. It will reduce Japanese to comfortable stereotypes. It will be shocking.

You gotta have wa.In “Kokoyaku: High School Baseball,” however, Kenneth Eng really gets it right. This is a 57-minute documentary on the intense sporting and cultural phenomenon known as Koshien, which is the Yankee Stadium of Japanese baseball. It is also where the Hanshin Tigers, a professional team in Osaka, play their home games - and, perhaps most importantly, Koshien refers to the finals of the annual high school tournament.

Every year there is a round robin tournament of teams from all 49 Japanese prefectures, in which 4,000 teams compete. The games are single elimination: lose and you are out. The qualifying games are top news in the sports pages of local newspapers. To play for a team that makes it to Koshien - Japan’s National High School Baseball Tournament, which is nearing its 91st year - is to virtually guarantee success in life. Companies assume that if a young man has the mental and physical toughness and stamina to endure the training, he will be a valued asset. All games, moreover, are broadcast nationally for the two-week period of the tournament; if a team goes reasonably far, all of the starting members will become household names throughout Japan.

In this documentary, Eng follows the fortunes of two teams, powerhouse Chiben Wakayama and a minor public high school team from Osaka city, Tennoji High School. Qualification is brutal and capricious; training is militaristic and never-ending. Chiben, a well-endowed private school, is one of many schools in Japan that recruit nationwide for players. It is led by a legendary coach - Hitoshi Takahashi - who is known for beating his players. Tennoji is many notches down the baseball food chain, but its practice regimen is no less rigorous (the players get several days off for the the New Year's holidays; otherwise they have morning practice before school begins, and then afternoon practice that will often continue until 9 pm). Its coach is the emotional Hideshi Masa.

Using a fly-on-the wall approach, Eng takes us through the practices, the limited home life (for those who do live at home) of the players, all the way up to the games that will decide if the two schools qualify. He also highlights several players from each school. With their shaved heads and starched-white uniforms, the players are young samurai ready to give all for their daimyo coach.

The tournament and schools eschew all advertising in the name of purity. The gladiators march in and out of the stadium with military precision. At the beginning of each game, one player steps up to a mike, raises his right hand, and pledges to play fairly and give his all. They dive headfirst into first base on easy ground-outs. At the end, players on the losing side openly weep. Hundreds and hundreds of fans are bused in from the provinces, and attendance of 50,000 is standard. And all in the blistering midday heat of an Osaka August—where temperatures will hit 100 degrees - and the time of year that coincides with Japan's loss in World War II and the nuclear bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki.

Eng also introduces the pep band from Chiben, which is led by a high school thug who rolls his Rs in an old fashioned Kansai mobster accent. He berates his charges to give their all-and much, much more. And they do.

Part fascist nostalgia, part longing for a simpler, rural way of life, Koshien is an excellent window into modern, changing Japan. It is where Hideki Matsui and most Japanese stars cut their teeth. Kenneth Eng has done an excellent job of presenting the players, game, and tournament.

Japanese Baseball Caps

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