NEW YORK – On this Independence Day, the most American of holidays, a film about what is arguably the most American of sports — baseball — had its broadcast premiere in the United States.
But “Kokoyakyu: High School Baseball” is set in Japan and provides a rare glimpse into its unique culture through the people’s reverence for the annual high school baseball tournament known as Koshien.
“Kokoyakyu,” the first English-language documentary about the Koshien baseball stadium in Nishinomiya, Hyogo Prefecture, where the tournament takes place twice a year — was a labor of love for director Kenneth Eng and producers Alex Shear and Takayo Nagasawa, spanning five years from the idea’s genesis to its premieres at film festivals throughout the country, and finally on PBS.
“We were fascinated — the whole idea of Japanese baseball was so mysterious to many Americans, and we knew it could be a great window into Japanese culture,” the filmmakers said in a statement, reflecting on Ichiro Suzuki’s debut in Major League Baseball as the start of “Kokoyakyu.”
While many young American players see playing baseball as “a form of recreation and an escape from daily life,” Eng said, the Japanese approach the game as something of “a spiritual journey, a serious endeavor — they bow to each other, they rake the field, they say thank you after the game.”
Both the earnestness and dedication of the players, the coaches, the cheerleaders and their families are shown clearly in the film, starting with a scene in which one player’s mother lovingly prepares breakfast for him at 4 a.m. and wakes him up for early morning practice.
The film focuses on two different teams working to get to Koshien during summer 2004.
Tennoji High School in Osaka, which is focused on academics, simply tries its best to get to the tournament, while there are high expectations for Chiben Wakayama High School in Wakayama, which has made over 20 trips to Koshien and won three times.
Coach Hideshi Masa at Tennoji High and Coach Hitoshi Takashima at Chiben Wakayama High both use the game to teach the young players about life, stressing discipline, teamwork and dedication, as well as the ability to bounce back and keep trying even in defeat.
Both coaches see baseball as a means of education for life, requiring a blend of heart, mental and physical strength to succeed.
While winning Koshien is the ultimate dream and goal, there is no crying over spilt milk when the teams lose.
In a poignant show of sportsmanship, losing teams present winning teams with streams of origami cranes made by students in what a cheerleader describes as a “relay,” so the two teams that make it to Koshien have a slew of brightly colored origami cranes with them. The cranes symbolize long life.
At Chiben Wakayama, the new team starts practicing for the next season the day they return home if they lose a regional game, Coach Takashima says in the film.
For most of the young Japanese players, making it to the amateur Koshien tournament is already a dream come true in itself, Eng said, in contrast with American players, who might aspire solely to make it to the major leagues.
Reaching the famous Koshien Stadium is such a rite of passage that losing teams take home dirt from the field as a souvenir.
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