Freshmen joining the Yokohama Hayato baseball team have to dedicate themselves to all aspects of the team philosophy. Right down to the proper way to say good morning.
“Your articulation is terrible,” a senior member tells a first-year player whose greeting wasn’t up to form. “Make sure to emphasize each syllable.”
This probably isn’t the type of scene you’d expect to see in a baseball documentary. Then again, “KOSHIEN: Japan’s Field of Dreams,” a film directed by Ema Ryan Yamazaki, isn’t exactly a typical sports movie.
Rather than the usual story about Koshien, Japan’s famed summer high school baseball tournament, Yamazaki wanted to pull back the curtain and give people outside Japan a better understanding of both Koshien and Japanese culture.
“Hopefully, they get to see a whole different version of the sport,” Yamazaki told The Japan Times. “A world of baseball that they didn’t know before. They can have their opinions after that, but I think it’s just a chance to better understand what it means to us. I think we also tried to make this film as kind of a microcosm of Japanese society at large.
“So even if you don’t care about baseball, if you have an interest in Japan, we hope you see how Japan used to be through how high school baseball has been and how society and high school baseball, looking ahead to change and adapt and hopefully keep progressing, mirror each other.”
The film spends most of its time with Kanagawa Prefecture’s Yokohama Hayato, which is managed by Tetsuya Mizutani and has three former players currently on NPB rosters, including Orix Buffaloes outfielder Yuma Mune.
Given access to Mizutani and his players, the film follows their quest to try to qualify for the 2018 tournament.
“I don’t think he (Mizutani) quite knew what he was getting into, but just allowed us to shoot freely as much as possible,” Yamazaki said. “That’s the reason we could make a film that I think feels really intimate as though we were right there the whole time, which we were.”
Also featured is Iwate Prefecture’s Hanamaki Higashi High School, managed by Hiroshi Sasaki, one of Mizutani’s proteges. Hanamaki Higashi famously produced major leaguers Shohei Ohtani and Yusei Kikuchi, who both appear in the film.
The summer tournament at Koshien is a treasured three-week spectacle of sports, culture and tradition set to the tune of brass bands and the sharp ping of baseballs meeting aluminum.
Fans regularly fill Koshien Stadium — total attendance was around 841,000 in 2019 — and each game is also televised nationally.
The players slide around the grassless infield while chasing grounders and make head-first dives into first base. Fans marvel at the “fighting spirit” on display and sometimes celebrate a valiant defeat with as much fervor as a victory.
“When I think about why Japanese people are drawn to the Koshien tournament, I feel they sense the players’ mind and spirit, which are things that Japanese people are very drawn to,” Japanese baseball legend Hideki Matsui said in comments released by the filmmakers.
Almost 4,000 schools compete in prefectural tournaments around Japan in hopes of earning one of the 49 coveted berths.
“Like Ohtani said, just making it there is the hardest part,” Yamazaki said.
The idea behind the film came in 2017, after Yamazaki, who grew up in Hyogo Prefecture and less than 20 minutes from Koshien Stadium, returned to Japan after nine years abroad.
Already well into her career, she found herself wanting to make a film about Japan. While readjusting to her home country, and appreciating things she’d once taken for granted, the 99th edition of the summer tournament began.
“I was really appreciating those Japanese traits and I realized, seeing the helmets lined up on the field and how the kids kind of embody very Japanese character traits, that maybe if I focused on high school baseball there was something I could capture about Japan,” she said.
“Why we’re the way we are, how we’re changing, what our struggles are, what our triumphs are, things like that. Then when I realized it was going to be the 100th tournament that following summer, I was like wow, let’s go for this.”
While variations of the film have been shown before, on NHK and also at DOC NYC, a major documentary film festival in New York, the filmmakers are excited to present it on ESPN. It will represent the first time for the feature film to be shown to a large audience outside of Japan.
That it will happen during a year when both the spring and summer tournaments were canceled because of COVID-19 isn’t lost on Yamazaki.
“So many unfortunate things are happening due to the pandemic,” she said. “But somehow I’d like to think there’s some meaning in the fact that this is the moment that Koshien reaches large audiences outside of Japan.”