Media : Fair and foul in the land of the rising sun

PBS does Japanese baseball with Kokoyakyu

David Stern and Paul Tagliabue might dissent, but baseball remains the national pastime — except that the nation in question is Asian. While Americans were being seduced by dunks and quarterback sacks, the sport of Cy Young, Babe Ruth, and Ty Cobb became as Japanese as miso. Teams from Honshu routinely excel in the Little League World Series, and the victor last March in the first World Baseball Classic was Japan. In high school, Japanese are taught to play yakyu (“field ball”) with the reverence and intensity of both Shinto priest and samurai.

Two Tokaidai Shoyo High-School baseball players after being eliminated from the Koshien Tournament.

Kokoyakyu: High School Baseball, scheduled for broadcast at 10 p.m. Tuesday, July 4, on KLRN-TV as part of PBS’s summer series of nonfiction cinema, showcases the 2003 edition of the Koshien Tournament, the games that, since 1915, have been determining the Japanese high-school champion. Out of more than 4,000 teams, 49 are invited to Koshien Stadium in Osaka to compete in an 11-day medley in which a single defeat means elimination. Televised nationally, Koshien enthralls and inspires the Japanese public. In their glimpse of baseball as an Asian martial art, filmmakers Kenneth Eng and Alex Shear offer a fascinating study in cultural translation.

Kokoyakyu focuses on two teams that were invited to Koshien. Chiben High School is a posh private school whose legendary coach, Hitoshi Takashima, has taken its squad to Koshien more than 20 times and won three championships. Tennoji High School, by contrast, is a public institution with limited resources whose coach, Hideshi Masa, states: “Koshien is the place I’ve been dreaming of since high school.” We follow both coaches and their players as they prepare assiduously, from the hour of the rising sun, for the exalted tournament. “The training is really spiritual practice,” says Takashima about an arduous regimen that includes not only strenuous, continuous practice, but also admonitions about selflessness and discipline. If American baseball is the collective action of virtuoso performers, the Japanese version emphasizes individual humility in pursuit of a group goal. In contrast to the commercialism that infects everything in the United States, baseball at Koshien, where advertising is banned and umpires are volunteers, remains resolutely amateur. The filmmakers were even discouraged from making Kokoyakyu unless they guaranteed it would not be exploited for profit.

A Japanese Rocky would demand that Chiben and Tennoji advance to the final round, for a dramatic confrontation between favorite and upstart. But each loses its third game. After brief montages of each of their contests, Kokoyakyu illustrates grace in defeat. Weeping coaches, players, and cheerleaders praise one another and bow to those who vanquished them.

The film conveys the fervor with which baseball is played and adored in Japan. But individual games are elided in a blur. It is impossible to tell whether designated hitters are included in the lineup, bunts are more common than homers, and screwballs are part of the pitching arsenal. In 57 minutes, Kokoyakyu does not place one Koshien tournament within the context of the history of sports in Japan or the opening of the island nation to outside influence. How does this all-boy competition reflect or shape the status of women in Japan? How are the values of Koshien absorbed into the country’s business and politics? As an attempt to explain baseball as a metaphor for an entire culture, Kokoyakyu hits a double, but gets caught stealing home.


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