New doc shines light on heart of baseball in Japan

June 29th, 2020

The coronavirus pandemic has truly had a global impact on the baseball world, both here in North America and overseas. In May, the Japan High School Baseball Federation decided to cancel the annual Summer Koshien high school baseball tournament out of public health and safety concerns, marking the first time it will not be staged since World War II.

The Koshien tournament is a prestigious event that has showcased the best Japanese high school players since 1915 – nearly 20 years before American superstars, including Babe Ruth, Lou Gehrig and Jimmie Foxx, toured the country. And though the tournament won’t take place this year, an independent film crew has done its best to keep its spirit going with a new documentary, “Koshien: Japan’s Field of Dreams,” that made its U.S. debut on Monday at 7 p.m. ET on ESPN.

“Koshien: Japan’s Field of Dreams,” directed by Ema Ryan Yamazaki, follows the Yokohama Hayato club and its coach, Mizutani, that strove to win the historic 100th annual Koshien tournament in 2018. The film takes an inside look at not only the dedication instilled by Mizutani on Yokhama to succeed on the diamond, but also the team’s attention to the values of discipline, sacrifice and respect to everything surrounding their baseball lives.

The Koshien tournament is an extremely popular event that, in Yamazaki’s words, “defines the Japanese summer,” and Mizutani’s desire to lead Yokohama to a Koshien championship -- and his expectation that his players share that same desire -- is front and center from the opening frames of the film. Tears flow frequently from players and coaches, out of both the thrill of victory and the agony of defeat, portraying the immense importance Koshien holds for its participants. In a larger sense, the film examines how the tournament itself might begin to change as the larger Japanese culture evolves around it.

“Koshien” also features Mizutani’s former protegee, Coach Sasaki, and Hanamaki Higashi, the high school that produced current Major League stars Shohei Ohtani and Yusei Kikuchi. Indeed, many of the most famous Japanese players to star in the United States forged their legend in the Koshien tournament.

Ohtani famously threw a 99 mph fastball in the tournament just days before his 18th birthday. Future Hall of Famer Ichiro Suzuki burst onto the scene in the 1991 Summer Koshien. Dasiuke Matsuzaka became a national celebrity after tossing a no-hitter in one Koshien start and throwing 250 pitches over 17 innings in another. Yu Darvish starred in back-to-back summer tournaments, leading his team to the finals in 2003. Former Yankees slugger Hideki Matsui played in three summer Koshien tournaments and once drew five consecutive intentional walks in a game, and current Yankees starter Masahiro Tanaka threw 742 pitches and totaled 52 2/3 innings over six appearances in the ‘06 tournament. Kikuchi pitched through a broken rib in the ’09 event.

The final Koshien tournament stage includes just 49 schools, whittled down from an original pool of nearly 4,000, that represent each region of Japan. Intense single-elimination tournaments are held just to decide who gets to play on the grand stage.

“Koshien is like our World Series,” Ohtani explains in the film. “Except that it’s single-elimination, so one loss and it’s over. The hardest part is even getting to Koshien.”

Ohtani, the Angels superstar who has captivated North American fans with his two-way prowess in MLB, is featured several times in “Koshien.” The film includes footage from when he pitched for Hanamaki in the 2012 regional qualifying tournament, where he hit 160 km/hr (99.4 mph) on the radar gun, and he returns to his alma mater while recovering from the Tommy John surgery he underwent in the summer of ’18.

“At first, I didn’t think I could throw 160,” Ohtani recalls. “I thought it wasn’t possible. But those around me kept telling me I could. I gradually believed it. One day, I did it. That experience -- it’s helped form who I am today.”

One of the biggest takeaways from the film is the profound space that the Koshien tournament, and the sport of baseball as a whole, occupies in the Japanese culture.

“From 100 years ago, it has been Japan’s source of solace,” one interview subject explained.

“Koshien” is Yamazaki’s second feature documentary. Her first, “Monkey Business: The Adventures of Curious George’s Creators,” premiered in 2017 and won the Audience Award at the Nantucket Film Festival. Yamazaki has also directed documentaries for television, including “Monk By Blood” and “Scorsese’s Silence.”