Film shines spotlight on ‘Japan’s Field of Dreams’

At first glance, “Koshien: Japan’s Field of Dreams” is a documentary film about Japan’s wildly popular high school baseball tournament that has captivated the nation every summer for more than 100 years. 

But beyond the balls and strikes and bases on balls, this 94-minute 2019 film now playing in virtual cinemas in San Francisco and across the country is really something much deeper: A compelling and intimate window into Japan and its culture currently at a crossroads between high-pressure “character building” traditions versus more moderate ways to educate its next generation. 

“I really wanted the film to tell the story of where Japan is coming from and where it might go in the future,” said Ema Ryan Yamazaki, the film’s director, in a Zoom call from Japan. “I wanted to provide insight as to why we are the way we are.”

For Yamazaki, high school baseball became a good microcosm for doing just that. As a native of Japan and a person of mixed-race ancestry (her mother is Japanese and her father is British), she felt like she could bring a unique “Eastern/Western” perspective to the project, and serve as a bridge between Japan and the world. 

In the film, we meet Tetsuya Mizutani, head coach of Yokohama’s Hayato High School baseball team. He carefully watches his players as they run in regimented militaristic fashion, with their heads shaved and everything from their helmets to their gloves impeccably lined up in front of its dugout — and ready for battle. 

The film, which had its U.S. premiere in June with a special screening on ESPN, follows the journey of Mizutani and two teams’ march to Koshien. But more than just baseball, Yamazaki also takes time to show Mizutani talking to his players about life and loyalty, the importance of the group, and how one’s attitude — good and bad — effects the entire team. 

And so, for the sake of the team, they practice every day, year-round. They repeat drills over and over again. They run to exhaustion, and then run some more. They clean and sweep the field after practice. They even pick up garbage on their way home. 

All of this leads to Koshien.Imagine the U.S. World Series meeting March Madness, except it’s bigger. For two and-a-half weeks every August, the nation becomes glued to the TV. At homes. In restaurants. It’s everywhere you go, no matter where you are. 

For Mizutani, winning at Koshien is everything. It’s why he has neglected his family, and has given his life to his teams. In Japan, Koshien is tradition, and it’s been this way since 1918. 

In fact, it was Koshien’s 100th anniversary that first caught Yamazaki’s attention when she returned home in 2017. She had spent almost 10 years in New York, studying film at New York University and working as a film editor on projects for HBO, PBS and CNN. She also completed her first feature documentary, “Monkey Business: The Adventures of Curious George’s Creators.” 

In her late 20s, she started looking inward, and felt a change was needed from big-city life. She yearned for simpler things, the things she grew up with back home. 

“Things like being considerate of one another,” she said. “Things like trains running on time, and everyone lining up in an orderly manner.” 

She grew up in Nishinomiya in Hyōgo Prefecture, where Koshien is located. She returned home during the summer, and Koshien was once again front and center. When it was announced that Koshien’s 100th anniversary was in 2018, she thought, “That would be a great tie-in for a documentary.”

She also brought another motivation to the project as well. Having lived in the U.S., she grew frustrated by how Americans and westerners often stereotyped Japanese people as stoic, hardworking and unhumorous. Her goal became to present her people as they are, with real and often complex human emotions. 

In the film, she skillfully draws out her subjects and gets them to reveal their hopes and dreams, as well as their fears, insecurities and self-doubts. After Koshien is over, head coaches Mizutani and Hiroshi Sasaki of Hanamaki Higashi High School, who managed MLB pitchers Shohei Ohtani and Yusei Kikuchi in high school, both reflect on their seasons, and express concerns about their strict approaches to coaching. Do we put too much pressure on our players? Do we push them too hard? It’s a question they are both grappling with, as Japan itself struggles with keeping traditions alive while facing a future that is no longer the same. 

As the filmmaker, Yamazaki says she doesn’t have the answers, but through her subjects, she wanted to ask the questions.

“Japan is now a wealthy nation,” she said. “People here should be happier. But the suicide rate is high. People are dying from over-working. I feel like we don’t have to be the same way we were in the post-war period. We don’t always have to feel all this pressure.”

Less pressure and stress would lead to a better quality of life, she believes. “I’m not saying Japan should become like America and drop everything. But maybe in the future, our trains can arrive six seconds late, and that would be OK.”

“Koshien: Japan’s Field of Dreams” is currently playing virtually at Cinema SF (Balboa and Vogue Theaters), as well as theaters across the country. Tickets are $10. To view the film, visit: www.firstrunfeatures.com/koshien.html.

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