Brought to us by Guinness, “Liberty Fields — The Pioneers of Women’s Rugby” shatters the old-fashioned idea that Japanese women are demure flowers who stay at home and support their families. But, 30 years ago, that delusion was much closer to reality when many women here had to ditch careers and passions for marriage. As for rugby — well that was a sport played by burly, sweaty men, right?
“It’s easy to buy into this kind of narrative, but I think this movie proves not many people are like that,” says Tokyo-based filmmaker Mackenzie Sheppard.
“Liberty Fields” is a soaring tribute to the women that dared to crush stereotypes by rolling around in a muddy field and playing rugby with everything they had. They were among the first Japanese women to make themselves known as rugby players in the late 1980s, compete in the first Women’s Rugby World Cup in 1991 and inspire hundreds of women to do the same. It is because of them that there are now more than 2,300 female rugby players in Japan. That sounds like a lot, but that number is actually a fifth of the female rugby-playing population in the United States and the United Kingdom.
In the film, former captain Noriko Kishida and her teammates reminisce about when they went to Wales to compete in the first World Cup and the dismal battering they suffered on the field. But as flanker Yukiko Dazai says, “When we sang the national anthem, my hands and knees trembled with pride.”
They subsequently discovered that female rugby players in other countries weren’t considered “vulgar” as they were in Japan, and were respected as athletes.
Sheppard says he wanted to show how free these women were and how hard they worked to win that freedom.
“I was ready to lay down my life on the field,” says Dazai.
Moving and uplifting beyond anything we’re used to seeing about Japanese women, “Liberty Fields” endorses individual freedom and gender equality without being in the least bit political. Viewing it, you realize just how far Japanese women have come, and the distance that has yet to be covered. The tears keep welling up, no matter how many times I watch it.