The PBS documentary series "P.O.V." rolls out its second film tonight with the sublime "Kokoyakyu: High School Baseball."
Pitcher from Komodai Tomokomai, moments before his winning pitch. (Jake Clennell/Projectile Arts, Inc.)
Director Kenneth Eng captures high school baseball in Japan through a beautiful, hour-long look at two dissimilar teams trying to make it to the national championship played at Koshien Stadium in Osaka—the same stadium where Babe Ruth and other American baseball legends played for Japanese fans in the 1930s.
"Kokoyakyu" centers on Chiben Academy (a well-to-do private school coached by the legendary Takashima), which has won the championship three times, and Tennoji High School (a public school coached by the modest Masa-sensei, whose team is considered a long shot).
Eng and writer-producer Alex Shear probe the way Japan takes the American sport and infuses it with its own values: heart, discipline, contribution. Their film conveys a cultural elegance. Coaches and players deliver speeches before and after games, searching for the right words and most often finding them.
When Masa-sensei announces his roster for the tournament, he delivers one of the most powerful and moving speeches I've ever heard in any sports film. That such sweet words come to us in documentary form makes them even more memorable.
On-field theatrics aren't the appeal here; it's the off-field ritual that attracts the viewer in "Kokoyakyu." The losing team literally sings the praises of the winning team. Teams make origami cranes stuffed with wishes for a championship. Managers constantly make tea for the players. Team captains invoke past rosters in motivational speeches before the first pitch.
Players, coaches, cheerleaders and fans invest relationships with formal rituals that enliven the sport most Americans now find commonplace. An American introduced baseball to Japan in 1872, and now the country lives its own version of the pastime in ways that go far beyond producing major leaguers like Ichiro Suzuki and Hideki Matsui.
"Baseball has some kind of magic," says Chiben's Coach Takashima. "That's the baseball that came from America."
Now, baseball is a rite of passage for many Japanese youth, whether they're players, cheerleaders, team managers or fans. The tournament is intense, and everyone's senses are heightened. Dugouts buzz, cameras roll, and fans cheer as a pep band belts out Barry Manilow's "Copacabana." Obviously then, Japanese baseball works its own magic, and Americans will surely love this record of it.
Four thousand teams hope to stand as champions at Koshien; only one will. But like so many things, it's not the statistics that stand out—it's the stories, the people, the moments. "Kokoyakyu" delivers what we want, wrapped up in a baseball diamond on an island nation whose fortunes are increasingly forged with ours.
When Tennoji's season ends and its team captain says goodbye to baseball, his coach bids him a simple but unforgettable farewell.
"When you get married, come tell me," he says. "Have children, and teach them baseball."
Cliff Vaughn is culture editor for EthicsDaily.com.
P.O.V.'s official Web site is here.
The P.O.V. "Kokoyakyu" Web site is here. (It includes a discussion guide and many more good materials.)
EthicsDaily.com will review more documentaries from this season's P.O.V. series. Bookmark us!