Japanese Culture Examined Through Baseball Traditions in Koshien Documentary, Airing on ESPN

Koshien follows Japan's annual high school baseball tournament, which captivates the country for two weeks every summer

The Yokohama Hayato High School team. Photo: Cineric Creative, NHK & NHK Enterprises

The mythology of baseball in America conjures up images of bucolic ease, where the game is an escape from the pressures of daily life.

Not so in Japan. When baseball was first introduced there in the 1870s, the concept of sports as pure leisure didn’t exist in the country. Instead, baseball was embraced as part of the martial education of Japanese youth. These origins lend Japanese baseball a distinct flavor that reflects the culture, a subject examined in director Ema Ryan Yamazaki’s incisive documentary, Koshien: Japan’s Field of Dreams, which airs on ESPN tonight at 7 EST.

The title takes its name from the stadium that hosts the country’s annual high school championship tournament, where Japan’s baseball traditions are most ardently expressed. Practices for Koshien, as the tournament is known, are year-round, highly regimented and grueling. Players go through their drills with militaristic precision, and not a single batting helmet is out of place. The field at the stadium is considered sacred ground; losing players are given bags to collect dirt as a keepsake.

Koshien captivates Japan for two weeks every summer. It made legends of American Major Leaguers like Hideki Matsui, Yu Darvish and Daisuke Matzusaka years before most Americans had heard of them. Los Angeles Angels star Shohei Ohtani says in the film: “Koshien is like our World Series.”

The film follows Yokohama Hayato High School, coached by Mizutani, a stern disciplinarian who is emblematic of the traditional ways. His authority is absolute, and among his players, there’s a prevailing ethos of self-sacrifice and collectivism that will come across as foreign and perhaps inspiring to viewers in the United States, where wearing a mask to combat COVID-19 is considered by many as an infringement on their freedom.

Cineric Creative, NHK & NHK Enterprises

At the beginning of the film, Mizutani tells his players, “Dedicate every moment of your life towards this team’s victory.” The buy-in is unanimous.

For Mizutani, coaching is more than a passion, it’s a calling — one that comes at the expense of his family life. Mizutani has a 15-year-old son who is a great baseball player, but his father has never seen him play. Instead, he has sent him away to his protégé, Sasaki, who is the coach of Hanamaki High School, which the film follows as well.

Sasaki, who coached Ohtani and Seattle Mariners pitcher Yusei Kikuchi, has a softer touch than Mizutani. He allows his players room for autonomy and is open to contemporary and American coaching methods. He speaks of the benefits of the traditional approach but also of the need to adapt.

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Thus, the film — which builds tension and excitement in the game scenes — presents a divergence between mentor and mentee, and father and son. According to Yamazaki, the director, this reflects an old-new tension in Japanese society at large.

In a statement obtained by PEOPLE, Yamazaki says that Japan is struggling “to find the balance between ‘character-building’ traditions and more moderate ways to educate the next generation of successful adults. Much of the struggle Japan faces is universal: how to keep tradition while adapting to the influences of globalization, and how to honor where we have come from while facing a future that is no longer the same.”

Cineric Creative, NHK & NHK Enterprises

This tension has particular resonance for Yamazaki, whose first documentary, Monkey Business: The Adventures of Curious George’s Creators, won the Audience Award at the Nantucket Film Festival. Yamazaki, who has a British father, grew up as a mixed-race person in Japan, and says she’d always held traditional Japanese values at arm’s distance. But when she left Japan for the U.S. at 19 to attend NYU’s Tisch School of the Arts, she says she “gained a deeper appreciation for Japan — such as the trains running on time, people patiently lining up, consideration of others and a sense of personal responsibility.”

By making Koshien, Yamazaki says she wanted to show that “a society’s strengths may also be its weaknesses.”

Koshien: Japan’s Field of Dreams debuts tonight at 7 EST on ESPN.

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