We may think of baseball as the American Pastime, but we are not the only place that loves the game. Baseball is also a very popular sport in Japan, and has been for over 100 years. Each year, there is a nationwide high school tournament leading up to crowning a champion at Koshien Stadium near Kobe. It has a nationwide following that surpasses professional baseball. Each year thousands of high school baseball teams begin the single elimination tournament in their prefectures. Only one team from each prefecture goes on to Koshien. Koshien: Japan’s Field of Dreams, from Ema Ryan Yamazaki, shows us a team’s quest to achieve that challenging goal.
The film focuses on Yokohama Hayato High School. The team is coached by Mizutani, who has made one trip to Koshien in his thirty year career. He is often stern with his players, pushing them as they train for the tournament. The school has 129 students who are taking part in the baseball program, but only twenty can make the summer team. We get to know a few of them, but most of the focus in on Mizutani.
The training regimen for these high school baseball players is grueling. We watch as they run in unison around the field. It looks like soldiers in boot camp. The seniors have been doing this for three years. Freshmen are having a hard time learning to stay together, and an upperclassman scolds them. They have to work as a team.
But it is not only about baseball skills and ability. In a meeting with the new freshmen, a senior mentor discusses the philosophy of the program. The number one goal is “to grow as humans”. That means being attentive to all around you. It means caring for the world. (One of the things we note is that these players pick up trash anywhere they go.) They drill on the proper way to speak. The senior mentor criticizes the way some of the players say “good morning” and “thank you”.
We also meet Sasaki, the coach of Hanamaki Higashi school. Sasaki was an assistant coach under Mizutani, whom he considers a mentor. Sasaki, however, has gone on to make it to Koshien several times. He has also coached players who have made it to American baseball, such as Shohei Ohtani of the Angels and Yusei Kikuchi of the Mariners. Sasaki likens his coaching to growing bonsai plants—how they grow to fit the size of container, and the way wires are needed to form the shape, but will injure the plant if left too long. When Mizutani’s son becomes a freshman, Mizutani thinks it would be best if his son not play for him, so he is sent far from home to play for Sasaki.
But this is not just about baseball. In some ways, this serves as a chance to look at some of the cultural norms of Japanese society. The Japanese work ethic that evolved after World War II, created a strong economy, but perhaps globalization is bringing changes. Mizutani’s parents built their own company, but his mother doesn’t understand why he does not return to work in it, especially after the death of his father. That work ethic also has an effect on family life. Mizutani is rarely home. In fact it is at a practice game between Hayato and Higashu that he first sees his son play baseball (and for another team!).
That work ethic is also seen in the way the players push themselves. In a clip from a previous Koshien tournament, the TV announcers mention that the pitcher in the game threw 253 pitches yesterday. An American coach that allowed a player to through 250 pitches in a week would probably be fired for abuse. Yusei Kikuchi recalls trying to continue pitching in the tournament with a broken rib. It would not be acceptable to say he couldn’t go on.
When there is only one champion out of thousands, it means disappointment for most. And we see that disappointment play out in this film. It is what is said after that disappointment that allows us to see the way that sports can build character.
Koshien: Japan’s Field of Dreams is available on Virtual Cinema through local arthouses.
Photos courtesy of First Run Features.