I haven’t been shy in expressing my distaste for Masaki Kobayashi’s films in the past. I find his heralded masterpiece, The Human Condition to be, in spite of some impressive visuals, a far too schmaltzy experience. Kobayashi’s mentor was Keisuke Kinoshita, who I believe suffers from the same problem. For whatever reason, I find myself going back to their work, perhaps because there’s something apparent that warrants such re-visitation or maybe it’s just a personal interest in Japanese film from this time period. Whatever the case, I give these two more chances than they probably deserve considering my personal experience with their best-known work. I do so for the off-chance I come along a film such as this one.
Daisuke Kishimoto is a young baseball scout for the Toyo Flowers. He and several other club scouts are in the middle of a bidding war with the country’s hottest prospect, Goro Kurita. The recruiting process is highlighted by crafty maneuvers against rival scouts, some suspicious gifts, and a constant interaction with Kurita himself. In the process, Kishimoto, convinces himself that he has something of a relationship with Kurita, but their interaction never escalates beyond a sales pitch.
I will take a step back and acknowledge that this film isn’t exactly a masterpiece and it certainly suffers from some of the things I’ve personally come to expect from Kobayashi as a director. That said, though, his style seems to translate better in a film like this, which can build upon his aesthetic without forcing a rather contrived type of humanism. That impulse actually creeps in towards the end of this film, but most of it is a fairly compelling study of the state of popular sports in 1950s Japan. It’s obviously not a flattering portrait, but it is an engaging one.
Considering the film’s content and the fact that Kobayashi would follow up with Black River in 1957, their might be a pull for some to classify this as a noir. I’m not against this theory, but I think Kobayashi is emulating another classic American genre here, the science fiction film. Obviously, there is nothing remotely science fiction about this, but the film’s tone seems to be not unlike that of such American films from the same period. Kishimoto is frequently flying to and from certain location, and this information is given to us in a fairly simplistic, slightly plastic looking shot of a plane that is repeated frequently throughout the film. The “establishing shot” of the airplane is always followed up with a shot of Kishimoto in the airplane and he’s usually mulling over the possibility of convincing Kurita to sign with the Toyo Flowers. These sequences are accompanied by theremin music.
The planes eventually land, and we’re transported to a world with images that seem other-worldly. Baseball stadiums filled to capacity seem to suggest an almost industrial spaceship, ones that have managed to benefit from the nature of the baseball world. The front office people involved with baseball are almost all crooks. We see them frequently gamble, rather innocently at first with a sumo wrestling match, but then they bet of horseracing, and lter, dogfighting. As it tends to be the case with Kobayashi, the intentions are clear, arguably to a fault, but his critique here is buoyed by some humor to the proceedings. The film doesn’t quite reach the satire of Yasuzo Masumura’s very similar Giants and Toys from 1958, but it does shy away from Kobayashi’s ham-fisted tendencies.
As I already mentioned, this still suffers from some traditional Kobayashi problems. The film ends with [spoiler but not really] Kishimoto failing to sign Kurita. In the process, he’s become close with another scout, Kyuki, who is much older and his fallen ill. He is disgusted when Kurita decides to sign with neither of their teams. He goes into a tirade, calling Kurita a monster. It’s not because he didn’t get to sign Kurita himself, but that Kurita betrayed Kyuki as well. This seems to be the most problematic stretch of the film. For 100 minutes, we’re conditioned to believe that the world of baseball is a nasty one, but the film’s discourse seems to shift with the embodiment of the problem: Kishimoto. The audience is to take up his cause: that Kurita might be the root of the problem and he’s too young to realize how much trouble he caused everyone.
As the film concludes, we’re given a scene of Kurita’s approaching his first at-bat, but we never get to see the first at-bat. This might be one of Kobayashi’s strongest moments ever. My problems with him tend to suggest that he shows and tells us too much, but the fact that he withholds Kurita’s actual participation in the big leagues is crucial. Throughout the film, there is a side plot involving the actual baseball world and we get some impressive archival footage of some Nippon Professional Baseball games. The rest of the film is about everyone stumbling over each other just to get closer to Kurita. All it does is give one professional baseball player. It’s a clever bit on Kobayashi’s part and it provides a powerful statement. Within something as specific as professional baseball, he has made something more constructive and interesting than what he did working within a more important context.