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Where EAST meets the Northwest

PLAY BALL. In Kenneth Eng’s Kokoyakyu: High School Baseball, distinctions in social and economic class are lost for the compelling weight and momentum of Japanese culture. Pictured above are Tokaidai Shoyo High School players standing in line during the singing of their school song. (Photo/Jake Clennell, Projectile Arts, courtesy of P.O.V.)

 

From The Asian Reporter, V16, #26 (June 27, 2006), page 1 and 11.

In Japanese high school baseball, all roads lead to Koshien

Kokoyakyu: High School Baseball

Directed by Kenneth Eng
Written and produced by Alex Shear
Produced by Takayo Nagasawa
Presented by P.O.V.
 

By Polo

New Yorker Kenneth Eng’s film Kokoyakyu: High School Baseball does three things and does them all very well. There are two thoughtful parallel narratives, about two kinds of high school baseball teams — both made of extremely physical, emotionally exuberant teens, both made into disciplined baseball teams by masterful coaches: one very working class, the other legendary to the Japanese game. By story’s end, neither team wins the national tournament; indeed, bitter tears are shed. Total commitment makes for crushing disappointment. But in the end, every player is transformed. And it is this transformation, so full of heart (ki), so Japanese, that matters most. Really, no one loses. Japan reaffirms herself every August.

"We’re of course playing baseball," says Chiben Academy coach Hitoshi Takashima. "But when you get down to it, we’re educating them as people. The training is really a spiritual practice."

Kokoyakyu follows the respective teams of Tennoji Public High School and Chiben private high school. While both teams dream, as all Japanese high schools have dreamt since 1917, of making it to the annual autumn national baseball tourney at Osaka’s Koshien Stadium, the two teams are composed of kids and drilled by masters from different neighborhoods, with very dissimilar resources and ambitions. But distinctions in social and economic class are lost for the compelling weight and momentum of Japanese culture. High school baseball is a national obsession. Four thousand teams, backed by their earnest student bodies and eager families, compete intensely for 49 playoff spots at Koshien. Millions of spectators focus on the completely non-commercial national ritual. Just going there, performing with great love for the game and dedication to core Japanese cultural values, brings schools and coaches great prestige.

Baseball as martial art

"In Kokoyakyu: High School Baseball, we wanted to capture the unique aspects of Japanese-style baseball and the way Koshien marks a rite of passage for the nation’s youth," says the film’s writer and producer Alex Shear. "It’s really unlike anything in the United States, and the way Japanese kids approach this rite is also quite a contrast to youth culture — especially sports culture — in America."

The point of Japanese sport in general and youth baseball in particular feels more purely Olympian in the classic Hellenistic sense. Individual play is subordinated for group unity. Beating the other side is less important than doing your very best. As Coach Hideshi Masa, an emotionally engaged uncle type, puts it in the film, baseball is similar to martial art. "Your opponent is not your enemy. You are your own enemy. Believe in your strength and exert yourself. The results will follow."

Director Kenneth Eng studied filmmaking at the School of Visual Arts. His thesis film, Scratching Windows, was broadcast on Thirteen/WNET New York’s "Reel Life" PBS series. He has directed numerous documentary productions and music videos, including his 2001 feature Take Me to the River, about the 2001 Maha Kumbh Mela pilgrimage in India. Mr. Eng and Mr. Shear both grew up in Boston and play baseball for the Beantown Basers, an amateur team.

The Kokoyakyu companion website, <www.pbs.org/pov/kokoyakyu>, offers exclusive streaming video clips from the film and Q&A with filmmaker Kenneth Eng. The site also provides video interviews with Japan imports/U.S. baseball stars Hideki Matsui and Ichiro Suzuki, both Koshien national heroes, both speaking on contrasts between the Japanese and American baseball traditions.