Film / Reviews

The Vancouver Asahi: Angels are not in the outfield for immigrants

by Mark Schilling

Special To The Japan Times

Of making baseball films there is no end. The sport provides an endless supply of ready-made narratives: from a fight to win the pennant (“Damn Yankees”) or to simply win (“Major League”), to a player’s struggle with illness (“Pride of the Yankees”), or an oversized ego (“Mr. Baseball”).

Japan’s many yakyū (baseball) fans have also seen their share of domestic films about the sport, often animated and based on popular manga.

The winner of the audience award at this year’s Vancouver International Film Festival — where it had its world premiere — was Yuya Ishii’s “Vancouver no Asahi (The Vancouver Asahi),” which is a different sort of Japanese baseball film entirely. Based on a real-life team of Japanese-Canadians who were active from 1914 to 1941 (after which wartime restrictions forced them to permanently disband), the film is a serious social drama, if one with a typical win-the-big-game narrative.

Ishii tried a similar mix in his feel-good drama “Fune o Amu (The Great Passage).” The film pleased both audiences and critics, winning a cartload of domestic prizes, including Japan Academy Awards for best film and best director.

Vancouver no Asahi (The Vancouver Asahi)
Rating
Director Yuya Ishii
Run Time 133 minutes
Language Japanese

But Ishii is on shakier ground in his new film, which is set in not only a now-distant era, but also a place that few Japanese know today — Vancouver’s Japantown. Ishii himself confessed to a Vancouver newspaper that both Japantown and the Asahi team were unknown to him before he began the project.

He and scriptwriter Satoko Okudera have created a story that compresses the team’s nearly three-decade history and 10 city championship wins into a far shorter time frame.

Also, the film’s pronounced us-versus-them narrative, with both the team and the Japantown residents continually confronting raw prejudice while living in a Japanese linguistic and cultural bubble, repetitiously simplifies the messy process of assimilation that so many immigrants underwent in that era.

The result is an exercise in soft nationalism targeted at the home market, despite its international veneer. The aim, as was the case with “The Great Passage,” is to make the local audience proud to be Japanese — as well as thankful they don’t have to endure the same harsh treatment from a non-Japanese majority as the film’s much-put-upon heroes.

The story’s focus is on Reggie (Satoshi Tsumabuki), the second-generation immigrant son of an earthy, hardworking mother (Eri Ishida) and a stiff-necked laborer father (Koichi Saito). A lowly worker at a sawmill, under a Japanese-baiting taskmaster of a foreman, Reggie lives for the games of his amateur baseball team, the Vancouver Asahi, which is the pride of Japantown, but also its pain, since they are perennial losers.

Reggie and the other players try hard, including his loyal pal Kaye (Ryo Katsuji), moody ace pitcher Roy (Kazuya Kamenashi) and boyish third-baseman Frank (Sosuke Ikematsu), but they are overmatched by their taller, stronger and beefier white opponents. What to do? The kindly manager (Shingo Tsurumi) isn’t much help, so when the retiring Reggie is selected as team captain — against his protests — he must figure out how they can win on his own.

His solution makes good baseball sense: play smaller, faster and smarter than the Asahi’s bulky, big-hitting rivals. But his strategy basically amounts to bunting at every opportunity and running like heck on the base paths. (It helps that opposing infielders range from the clumsy to the aging and obese.) What local sportswriters are soon calling “brain ball” works, however, and the Asahi team finally starts winning.

But the road to both baseball and social equality is still long and winding with no happy end in sight. Reggie’s sweet, spunky sister Emmy (Mitsuki Takahata) tries valiantly to assimilate, making friends with young and old whites alike, but even she gets the second-class-citizen treatment. And Reggie’s gray-haired dad, who can’t string together two words of English despite years of living in Canada, faces a bleak future as his strength wanes and jobs go to younger men.

These and other subplots occupy much screen time and make the film a rather downbeat viewing experience, for all the rah-rah moments of Asahi triumph and Japantown cheers. The end result of their efforts, as far as the film is concerned, is shipment to internment camps. The team wins the respect of the white majority, but it’s not enough to save the Japanese community.

Hollywood typically portrays the immigrant experience as a net positive. Tony “Scarface” Montana never expresses a desire to return to Cuba, even as his drug empire falls to bloody pieces. “The Vancouver Asahi,” on the other hand, makes a good case for never getting on the boat. Its target audience, in an increasingly inward-looking Japan, will probably agree.