Wednesday, July 08, 2015

Japan Cuts ’15: The Vancouver Asahi

This underdog 1930s team is sort of like the New York Cubans and other early African American baseball teams. Everyone loves them now, but they faced constant struggles in their day. However, the titular community team organized by the sons of Japanese immigrants actually played against white Canadian clubs in an otherwise all-white league. Life will be a challenge for them on and off the diamond in Yuya Ishii’s The Vancouver Asahi (trailer here), which screens as part of the 2015 Japan Cuts Festival of New Japanese Film.

Reggie/Reiji Kasahara works tirelessly at the lumberyard, but he dreams big when it comes to baseball. Unfortunately, the Asahi have never won a game. They are simply over matched by the big, beefy maple syrup-swilling Canadians’ power hitting and fastballs. Nonetheless, Kasahara must take some responsibility for strategy when he unexpectedly ascends to the team captainship. On the second game of the season, he experiments with bunt-and-run small ball, shocking everyone by scoring a run.

Soon, the Asahi are regularly winning games with what the local papers call their “Brain Ball” approach. After years of futility, the team finally becomes a source of pride in the Japanese immigrant community. They will need something positive to cheer, considering how the swirling clouds of war will further complicate their lives of economic marginalization.

Yes, Asahi follows a very predictable story line, but it is refreshing to see Canada take its lumps for change after all their tongue-clucking at the U.S.  Yes, there is plenty of discrimination documented in the film, but it is richer and more challenging when it explores the assimilation experience, for which there can be no better example than their passion for the game of baseball.

The sad and nostalgic tone is somewhat reminiscent of Ishii’s previous film, The Great Passage, but its characters are not quite as distinctly drawn as those in Ishii’s reference publishing drama. Reggie and his pals basically work hard and play hard, enduring all that comes their way. However, his younger sister Emmy is a deeper, more complicated figure, who truly strives to integrate into the Canadian society that never truly accepts her.

Ishii and screenwriter Satoko Okudera are not exactly subtle when making their points. Still, it is a painstakingly detailed period production. It also captures a sense of just how significant baseball was in the 1930s. It is almost inspiring to watch the Asahi’s scrappy style of play win over the white Anglo Canadians, even though we know it will all be undone by the WWII internment.

All the Asahi players look like they are young and hungry, starting with the wiry Satoshi Tsumabuki as Reggie Kasahara. Yet, it is Mitsuki Takahata and Koichi Sato who really elevate the film as his studious sister and rough-hewn father, respectively. Ultimately, it is an earnest and endearing film that wears its tragic fate with dignity. Recommended for fans of old fashioned baseball dramas, The Vancouver Asahi screens this Saturday (7/11) at the Japan Society, as part of this year’s Japan Cuts.