‘Hokushin Naname ni Sasu Tokoro’

Going back to the old school

by Mark Schilling

The old school tie is strong for many Japanese, especially members of the dwindling prewar generation.

Reunions of classmates, from elementary school on up, are a common, often serious theme in Japanese films, far more so than in Hollywood pics, where they are occasions for comic one- upmanship or pay-back. Characters who wax sentimental about these get-togethers are shown up as idiots, asses or some combination thereof.

Why the difference? Seijiro Koyama’s nostalgic drama “Hokushin Naname ni Sasu Tokoro (The Place Where the North Star Lies Low in the Sky)” offers clues. Based on a true story, it revolves around the 100th-year anniversary in 2001 of the baseball club of Number Seven High School (now Kagoshima University) in Kagoshima Prefecture.

My own high school, in Elyria, Ohio, was founded in 1830 and probably had a baseball team earlier than Number Seven’s, but I’d be surprised if anyone commemorated its anniversaries. Even attendance at my class reunions has been relatively sparse, with many alumni, including yours truly, hitting the road after graduation, never to return.

Hokushin Naname ni Sasu Tokoro
Director Seijiro Koyama
Run Time 111 minutes
Language Japanese

Number Seven, though, was an elite school in its prewar heyday, where the all-male student body spent seven years living in dormitories and undergoing a Spartan, militaristic education intended to mold the country’s future leaders.

A key part of that education was sports, with baseball at the top. The baseball club’s annual game with Number Five High School in Kumamoto Prefecture — its traditional rival — drew 30,000 fans in 1926, a large number then for even college or professional sports. No wonder the film’s baseball club OBs (“old boys” or alumni) are such a devoted lot — their days on the team were the high point of their young lives.

Players who ended up going to war, including star pitcher Katsuya Ueda (Koji Wada), had another reason to remember the club — many of their teammates never returned. So in 2001, when several OBs approach Ueda (Rentaro Mikuni), now a retired doctor living in Tokyo, about attending the 100th anniversary party, they expected him to say yes — and are shocked when he gently, but firmly, says no.

Consternation reigns. How can they hold their big get-together without one of their oldest, most distinguished members?

That may be the dramatic crux of “Hokushin,” but its real purpose, states producer Minoru Hirota in a program message, is to encourage its audience to “make the world a better place, express thanks for our lives, respect study and sincerity, have consideration for others and cease to lust after material things.” A tall order, but veteran Seijiro Koyama, whose 25 feature films include the World War II dramas “Gekko no Natsu (Summer of the Moonlight Sonata)” (1993) and “Himeyuri no To (Tower of Lilies)” (1995), rises to the challenge, ladling on the moral lessons.

The film’s earnest, didactic tone has its risible side, but Koyama is also a conscientious sort, who tries to show us what life for Ueda and his classmates was really like, including the raucous drinking sessions (not as much fun for those forced to choke down the sake) and the wild dances around the bonfire, with everyone flailing their arms and hopping from one foot to the other in unison, in a sort of demented group calisthenics.

The intent may be to glorify the days when male college students were pure-hearted youth bursting with yamatodamashi (Japanese spirit), not spiky-haired slackers, but the obsession with period detail, language and atmosphere makes the film arguably truer to its time than many Hollywood historical dramas.

There is also Rentaro Mikuni, born in 1923 and a star for more than half a century, giving the film a calm, but strong, emotional center as the elder Ueda. In contrast to the other OBs, who are still trying to relive their youths in their eighth decade, he has achieved distance and perspective — but also has wounds from the war that refuse to heal. Mikuni makes us understand the pain of those wounds, but more through the intensity of his glance than the usual grimaces and tears. His performance is economical to a fault — and stands in contrast to the overemoting around him.

The strangest presence in the film is that of Naoto Ogata as Kusano — an oendan (cheering squad) leader who takes the young Ueda under his wing. Ogata belts out the Number Seven High School song — which gives the film its title — with suitable brio, but he is also pushing 40 and looks it. When he is punished with a two-year suspension after taking responsibility for a prank, I started to wonder if he had been on campus forever, like a puffy-faced ghost.

An ultra-Japanese film celebrating the most American of sports and the boys that play it, “Hokushin” is an illuminating oddity. No one outside Japan will ever see it, but then, if you’re not an over-50 Japanese man who kind of admires the guys on the rightwing sound trucks, it’s probably not for you anyway.