“The Vancouver Asahi” – 2015 Japan Cuts Film Review

Thoughtfully written, scored and shot, “The Vancouver Asahi” (バンクーバーの朝日) tells a nearly-forgotten story in a neighborhood that is no more.  The Asahi were a recreational baseball team hailing from Vancouver’s Japantown that won numerous semi-professional titles between its formation in 1914 until its disbandment in 1941.  A Hollywood rah-rah sports movie this is not, and in the hands of Japanese director Yuya Ishii (“The Great Passage”), the tale takes on an unshakable load of heaviness with the specter of World War II looming throughout.

Satoshi Tsumabuki turns in another fine dramatic performance as Reggie in "The Vancouver Asahi." (still © 2014 “THE VANCOUVER ASAHI” Film Partners)
Satoshi Tsumabuki turns in another fine dramatic performance as Reggie in “The Vancouver Asahi.” (still © 2014 “THE VANCOUVER ASAHI” Film Partners)

All the characters in the film carry this weight, but none more so than Reggie, played by the versatile Satoshi Tsumabuki, who also serves as its narrator.  Reggie contends with a low-wage job where he apologizes more often than he should to his Caucasian superiors; a contrasting reluctant promotion to Asahi team captain; and a fractured home life where his father is more interested in getting drunk than tending to family finances.  Initially baseball, instead of serving as a welcome respite from life’s hardships, is a painful reminder of the racial tensions between the Japanese and the white communities because the Asahi continue to lose every game.  That is, until Reggie and the team decide to experiment with new tactics against their taller opponents.  The strategy actually works, and if it appears inconceivable that an endless cycle of bunts and stolen bases accurately follows the history books, that literature would tell you otherwise.  The Asahi’s brand of “brain ball” leads to victories, and in some of the (relatively) lighter points of the movie, the team is more confused than everyone else when their approach succeeds.

Heroic feats on the field in “The Vancouver Asahi,” however, fold into sadder stories off it.  In fact, Ishii actually downplays the team’s accomplishments, giving equal focus to the personal struggles of several players and their dependents.  Reggie’s sister Emi (Mitsuki Takahata) tries to assimilate into the wider community but pays the price at her job and at school, while his father (Koichi Sato) takes the opposite approach, leaving their mother (Eri Ishida) and Reggie caught in the middle.  Other supporting characters enter and exit the picture, but one who endures is the temperamental Roy, played by KAT-TUN J-pop band member Kazuya Kamenashi.  (One likely reason for his character arc is Kamenashi’s real baseball prowess; he regularly plays in celebrity events against professional Japanese players and can throw pitches exceeding 100 km/hour.)

Ultimately, Ishii’s decision to place sport and history on opposing ends of a balance scale works because it segues into the eventual fate of the Asahi.  The team’s success may win fans from all over and serve as a bridge between communities, but this is fleeting.  The U.S. bombing of Pearl Harbor in 1941 prompted the Canadian government to send all Japanese to internment camps, permanently breaking up the team, and reducing their accolades to fan accounts and scattered memorabilia.  Recognition came more than a half-century later with a documentary and an induction into the Canadian Baseball Hall of Fame in 2003, followed by the British Columbia Sports Hall of Fame two years later, and now – nearly a decade after that – Ishii’s fine film.

“The Vancouver Asahi” screens at the Japan Society on Sat., July 11, at 2:30 p.m., as part of Japan Cuts 2015.  For ticket information, go to japansociety.org.