Many a film director has knocked it out of the park with a baseball movie that uses the storied sport as a metaphor or vehicle to explore themes and issues that resonate far beyond the ballpark. In these films, Hollywood has a tendency to portray the game as the great national pastime, as American as apple pie. But a new film from Japan tells the story of a baseball team that is as Canadian as sukiyaki and a pot of hot tea.
The Vancouver Asahi, having its world premiere at the Vancouver International Film Festival, is a fictionalized account of a real-life baseball team that captivated fans here between 1914 and 1941. Directed by Japan Academy Prize-winner Ishii Yuya, the film also shines a light on the discrimination Japanese people experienced in Vancouver – and Canada – at the time.
"The film is quite frank about the kind of racism and prejudice that the Japanese community met in the 1930s. It doesn't pull punches about that," says Tony Rayns, who programs VIFF's Dragons & Tigers program. "It doesn't pull punches either about Japanese militarism and viciousness.… So the film in no way exonerates Japan, but neither does it exonerate the host community in Vancouver for giving these immigrants a hard time."
Many Asahi players were the children of Japanese immigrants who had come to Canada seeking a better life, but were rewarded instead with back-breaking work that paid them less than their white co-workers, and further discrimination in many aspects of Canadian life, which was passed on to the next generation.
A refuge from this difficult life was found on the baseball field. The Asahi formed in 1914 in the neighbourhood that came to be known as Japantown, and developed into a popular, winning dynasty that became the pride of the community and drew large crowds – including white fans – to the games. Between 1919 and 1940, the team won 10 city championship titles.
"I always say to everybody the story of Asahi is not about baseball; it's the story of the struggle of Asian Canadians in Canada, particularly on the West Coast, [facing] discrimination that didn't allow them to get proper jobs. Even if the second generation were educated and graduated [from] universities, they couldn't get professional jobs because Asian-Canadians didn't have the right to vote. So you didn't have anywhere to take your complaints to," says Grace Eiko Thomson, founding executive director/curator at the Japanese Canadian National Museum (now the Nikkei National Museum and Cultural Centre), where she curated an exhibition about the team dubbed Levelling the Playing Field.
"So they were living in this kind of situation, and here they are playing baseball and proving that on the playing field they can be equally good, that they could win championships. And as a result the Japanese-Canadian community was so proud of them because this was the only area of their life where they felt pride and felt that they were doing well, that they could be equals," adds Thomson, who served as a consultant on the film's script.
In researching the film, Ishii visited Vancouver several times. "I read all the literature [about the Asahi] and newspaper clippings from that era that I could get my hands on, and I met and interviewed Mr. Kei Kaminishi, who is the sole surviving member of the former Vancouver Asahi baseball team," Ishii told The Globe and Mail in an interview conducted through e-mail with the assistance of a translator.
"Initially I had no idea that there was a Japantown in Vancouver or … a baseball team called Asahi. I suspect that many residents of Vancouver don't know these facts."
While Ishii did some shooting here, the big-budget film was shot primarily in Japan on a large, purpose-built open-air set. Because there wasn't much documentation about Vancouver's historic Japanese neighbourhood, Ishii says "we tried to pursue the reality of a 'town,' and at the same time we built the set using … imagination.… I believe we were able to build 'Vancouver's Japantown that no one has seen.'"
Ishii has taken creative liberties with historical facts, condensing the timeline and setting his story much closer to the end of the team's life. The ragtag group, physically overshadowed by their white opponents and known for spectacular defeats, develops a surprise strategy for winning that comes to be dubbed "brain ball." But shortly after they turn things around on the field, world events put an end to it. After Pearl Harbor, the players and their fellow Japanese Canadians were sent off to internment camps. The Asahi never played again.
Of course, that's not just in the movie script.
"Nineteen-forty-one was the last season they played," says Thomson, who recalls her father talking about the Asahi when she was a little girl. "They lost that year. It's sad that they lost that year and they hung up their cleats saying we have to do better next year, and then they never got back together again."
While Thomson, who had not yet seen the film when we had our interview, expressed some disappointment over its historical inaccuracies (including the absence of a character modelled on the team's driving force, manager and coach Harry Miyasaki), she says she is "thrilled" that the story will get more attention now.
There has been renewed awareness of the team, thanks to its induction in 2003 into the Canadian Baseball Hall of Fame, and a documentary that same year, Sleeping Tigers: The Asahi Baseball Story.
But this Japanese film could attract international interest to this Canadian story – while resonating deeply in Vancouver.
Ishii, who has screened films at VIFF before, says he's "really happy" that this film will have its world premiere here, "and a little nervous. [Because] the story happens in Vancouver, and it's about the people of Vancouver."
He adds: "I hope the audience would see the film without any preconceived notions, and at the same time with support for Team Asahi, just like those Vancouverites back then."
The Vancouver Asahi has its world premiere at VIFF on Sept. 29, with additional screenings Oct. 4, 9 and 10.