Dir. Ema Ryan Yamazaki
There are more than 350 Division I men’s basketball programs in the United States. The 68-team March Madness tournament remains one of the great unifiers of offices across the nation, as even casual observers get pushed into pools to submit their brackets. Its randomness is its calling card, and for three weeks or so between March and April, it dominates the sporting headlines. Koshien, the summer high school baseball tournament in Japan, makes March Madness look tiny. Nearly 4,000 high schools, from every corner of Japan, are culled down to fifty-odd spots in a series of single-elimination games, culled down again to a single winner. It holds the attention of the whole nation far more than March Madness does here. Even qualifying for the tournament, let alone winning it, is an experience just short of holiness.
Spoiler alert: the boys from Yokohama Hayato didn’t win the hundredth Koshien in 2018. It’s not that much of a spoiler. (To make a fairly extended metaphor…my alma mater is Furman University, a South Carolina school where the men’s basketball team has been in the top three or four in the Southern Conference for the past half-decade. If every two- and four-year school in America put forward a basketball team, Koshien-style, Furman might have a shot at making a tournament like that. But betting on Furman to be the qualifying school from South Carolina, when USC and Clemson and Wofford and the College of Charleston and Winthrop are still out there, is optimistic. We would no more expect Hayato, a fairly strong high school program from perhaps the most competitive prefectures in Japan, to win Koshien than we might expect Furman to win March Madness outright.) Yamazaki knew she wanted to make this documentary before she knew that she wanted to use Mizutani, the old-fashioned coach at Hayato, as her way into the subject, and so we watch this team fade out pretty early. More than pretty early: shamefully early. Hayato under Mizutani had never been eliminated in the first round of qualifiers. There’s a scene in the film where we watch Mizutani and some others talk about the round after the first, confidently assuming that the team would march through the initial qualifier without trouble. The movie’s most horrible moment comes late in that game, a back and forth effort which comes down to the late innings. A runner from the opposing team comes home; the Hayato first baseman loses control of the throw and it hits the backstop. Another runner comes in. Hayato never recovers. Yamazaki is not a sports network and only has so many cameras, but the limits on her vantage points are somehow even more harrowing. You can tell the throw to the catcher will be off based on his body language a split second before you actually see the ball fly over his head, and that acts as a powerful one-two punch. Everyone must have known the team was doomed; men of Major League Baseball or Nippon Professional Baseball can’t always rally from that, let alone frantic teenagers. The losers at Koshien make a ceremony of digging dirt up from the field and carrying it home with them. The Hayato boys don’t even get the consolation of a profound memory.
More than anyone else, the film is about Mizutani. Some of his players get interviews, like the anxious team captain or a senior third baseman prone to mistakes who does not make the final roster, but the key figure in the film is a man a little in between times. His role model is a much stricter coach from a bygone era of baseball. There’s a longstanding (though slightly faded) expectation that the men of Japanese society should give themselves over entirely to their work, and it certainly seems that Mizutani has done just that. His wife doesn’t see him; when he comes home, he greets everyone and watches whatever baseball game is on. There’s an obsession with baseball generally and Koshien specifically which has dominated his life so much that it’s come around again, making him an enigma rather than an easily read man. Like Herb Brooks, who was cut from the 1960 Olympic hockey team that won gold, Mizutani missed out on ultimate glory as a player. His parents, expecting him to take over the family business, sent him to a different school than the one he was slated to go to. That school team from Ikeda won Koshien in a year he very probably would have played for them, and although he doesn’t make a show of dwelling on it, it’s so clear that being close to that most desirable glory and being kept from it is killing him. That obsession pushes him. And then, on the other hand, for a man so driven by baseball, his gaps are unbelievable. His son, about to be a high school freshman, has never played a game with his dad in attendance. It is a revelation said so coolly that it is about as shocking and heartbreaking as that moment when the ball sails over the catcher’s head.
Mizutani, with his decades of coaching and single appearance at Koshien, is a difficult man to admire. There’s a purity of spirit with Mizutani which in some sense might signify a greatness. The problem is that that purity of spirit, that clarity of purpose, has not led to victory. One of the things I love about baseball is how everything matters regardless of how random or unlikely it seems. The ball flying over the catcher’s head at a crucial moment in the first-round game is not necessarily indicative of that first baseman; for all we know, he was a wonderful fielder with a great arm who didn’t have the right grip on the ball in the moment. One can’t help but think of Bill Buckner, a guy who would absolutely belong to that hypothetical Hall of Very Good, but who will always be best remembered for one of the worst-timed errors in baseball history. Give that first baseman that play ninety-nine more times, or Buckner, and you have to imagine that they’d be able to pull it off just fine in the vast majority of cases. Still, over time, the data piles up and all of those individual moments begin to become something genuinely meaningful. When Yamazaki begins filming Mizutani, he is a man coaching one of the two hundred teams in such a competitive prefecture, and in his decades of coaching he has the one appearance at Koshien. No matter how hard they try, some people will only ever be in the sixtieth or seventieth percentile of success.
One of Mizutani’s disciples is the coach of Hanamaki Higashi, a high school in northern Honshu, and it is one of those cases where the disciple has become the master. Although he is still waiting on his first Koshien championship, Sasaki has been to the competition ten times in many fewer years coaching than Mizutani has compiled. Everything he knows, he tells the camera, comes from Mizutani, and he is deferential to him over and over again. There is enough closeness between them that Mizutani’s son, rather than being put in the impossible position of playing for his father, plays for Sasaki in Iwate instead. Yamazaki does not have to say it herself, though: whatever Sasaki has learned from Mizutani, he has transcended and made greater than his mentor ever could. Granted, coaching Shohei Ohtani is kind of an advantage, one that Sasaki could not entirely wrangle to Hanamaki’s benefit. But you can hear a different tone, a different approach in him. Sasaki talks about something besides work, which Mizutani almost never does, and that’s gardening. He finds the metaphor of growing plants to the point where they must be allowed to move freely a compelling one, and so at the end of the film we hear him give his players a somewhat shocking announcement. Baseball players traditionally shave their heads; at Hanamaki, Sasaki tells his players, that is no longer required. In that moment, you think about the uniformity of these players, the way that they run in the same strides together, the way they stand out from the other students at their high school. The communal spirit of Japanese culture, one which prizes the many above the individual, is being poked at. Sasaki is inventing, invigorating, and whether or not this change will contribute to a Koshien championship for him and his players is still up in the air. The difference is that Koshien imagines that the possibility still lies ahead for Sasaki to improve further and win that greatest triumph. It is impossible to believe that Mizutani, a middle-aged man in pursuit of a boys’ championship, has victory in his future no matter what hairstyles his players might have.