By Coop Daley
For many fans of Japanese baseball, the National High School Baseball Championship is one of the most important events of the year. Teams from across the country duke it out for a spot in the final rounds that take place at mecca of Japanese baseball: Koshien Stadium. Although the event is well known outside of the country for the revered stature of the final stage, the championship represents much more for Japanese citizens. The hard work, discipline and honor displayed by each player is known to represent the true spirit of the country, making it more than just a game: it’s a lifestyle.
This spirit and lifestyle areon full display in Ema Ryan Yamazaki’s film, “Koshien: Japan’s Field of Dreams,” which intimately details the struggle of multiple teams to qualify for the tournament and achieve immortal glory. To discuss the film and her filmmaking process, Yamazaki joined the final “Chatter Up!” of the year on Dec. 3, and discussed her filmmaking style, along with the lasting impact the process had on her:
“I would say that there was really nothing easy about the project, I would split the… parts that were very difficult: one was to get the permission,” Yamazaki explained. “So you may or may not know that the High School Baseball Union runs high school baseball, and there’s a reason that this kind of film has not been really made before. Also the filming – I think 100 days of going between four schools in very hot heat, trying to figure out where to be on which day. Mainly Hayato [High School], but you know, if I left Hayato I would be so scared we would miss something, and just not knowing the outcome, always making sure we had enough options [so] at the end of the day, I could make a film.”
Yamazaki was born in Japan and grew up 15 minutes away from Koshien, in Nishinomiya. Although she did not have much experience with baseball growing up, she said that it did have an impact on her life: while still a primary school student, Yamazaki was inspired by the legendary MLB and NPB outfielder Ichiro Suzuki, and his desire to be the best in the sport. She said that his drive to be the best in something inspired her to search for her own talent to perfect:
“When I was 11 years old, I read a book about him in school,” Yamazaki said. “Until then, I had no idea who he was – [I] had no interest in baseball or sports – and that book changed my life. It was just a book about his life; at the time, he was about to go to the majors, and it was a book that showed that since he was three years old, he practiced baseball every day, with the hope of becoming the best. That inspired me to realize I have to find something I love, something that will become my baseball, and then just dedicate myself to it like he did. So, I spent my middle school years really actively looking for that thing, which I picked to be filmmaking… I just thought, ‘Okay, so I will work hard too, and one day go to the US just like he did, study and try to be a good filmmaker.’ So really, my life is thanks to him.”
Yamazaki also discussed her work with the high schools’ managers, Tetsuya Mizutani of Yokohama Hayato and Hiroshi Sasaki of Hanamaki Higashi. She said that while both took some convincing to allow her access, she was able to get her foot in the door by appealing to their sense of historic importance and legacy:
“We had a dinner setup with Mizutani, and he is so charismatic,” Yamazaki said. “He didn’t really take that much convincing. I think he likes having a good media, it means good things for the baseball program… I don’t think he… realized I would be there every day for many months, so later he always tells me he just said “yes” without really thinking about it… Sasaki, the other coach, was much harder to convince… At first, he was like, ‘Why do I need to share things I’ve learned about how to coach my baseball team with anyone?’ Which is a valid point, and as a filmmaker, you always have to find a reason for the other person to want to participate. Ultimately, I said, ‘You might not need this, but maybe it would be nice for you to be documented within history. And also, I think what you’re doing here will be such a hint for every other educator in Japan, and maybe in the rest of the world. It’s not just about baseball. Please contribute to the future of Japanese society,’ is ultimately how I convinced him.”
Yamazaki also touched on various “hot topics” within Japanese society that she aimed to capture in her film. Japanese baseball has a long of tradition of strict – perhaps excessive – standards, but a relaxing of the culture around the sport is not such an easy evolution to undergo:
“I think what’s really difficult about high school baseball is [that] the extremity of it is what makes it so significant in our culture,” Yamazaki said. “A lot of these kids, I think, are at the sacrifice of inspiration for a country, and that’s how it is by now. And that might not be fair, but I also think a lot of kids know that; that’s what they also want to be a part of, so it’s a very difficult matter. And as someone who loves high school baseball, I understand these issues that are problematic, and they need to change, but it’s very difficult: at what point does the essence of the sport, and the culture, start to erode, too? That’s the balance, and I think the people that have that job have a very difficult task on hand. It’s really easy also for us from the outside, to criticize the union or criticize the coaches, but it’s actually very difficult. ‘How do you educate the next generation in an appropriate way?’ is always the question at hand, and seeing it firsthand, I don’t know the answer, I just know it’s really difficult.”
Yamazaki added that while acknowledging history is crucial, it’s always important to keep moving forward, and to not let any traditional values hold one back:
“I think we always have to acknowledge things that have built Japan, but also the understanding we don’t have to keep doing that. I think that’s also something I tried to explore in the film, because I think society is struggling with that, trying to figure out what things to keep and what things to change, as Sasaki said so well in the film.”
In addition to these thoughts, Yamazaki gave her ideas for a possible future documentary project on Ichiro, her experiences with Mizutani’s family and loved ones and the sheer emotion she felt once the teams she had followed for so long were finally eliminated. For these discussions and more, check out the full transcript of the call on our Japanese Baseball Blog, or watch the full call for yourself on our YouTube channel!
In the final “Chatter Up!” of a wild, crazy year, Yamazaki was a wonderful guest who presented amazing observations on Japanese Baseball and the country as a whole. Hopefully we can have a lot more of these discussions, whether virtual or in person, very soon.