Talking Movies: Rounding the bases abroad

Talking Movies
As every critic is obliged to point out, American sports films are [still] almost universally about redemption and sports as a form of social and moral healing.

As summer dawns, American sports fans begin to drift into a sort of happy languor as they pursue the time-honored rituals of the national pastime. Between the point at which Cubs fans recognize that their team’s hopes are exclusively mathematical and the hoopla of the mid-July all-star break, early season excitement flattens into the more relaxed appreciation of the beautiful game and its slow, methodical pace. We start to recognize the stoic rhythms that define baseball as the day-to-day reality of the longest season in professional sports starts to set its grip. This might be a good time, then, to broaden our horizons beyond 42 and consider some baseball films from outside the United States.

As every critic is obliged to point out, American sports films are [still] almost universally about redemption and sports as a form of social and moral healing. So too were the Japanese supotsu-mono, or youth sports stories of the postwar period. Imagine the similar need for redemption, the restoration of traditional values and the sheer distraction from global events that Japanese filmgoers of the 1950s might reasonably have felt. Typical sports films of this genre were opportunities for handsome young actors to play heroic though unchallenging roles in traditional Japanese sports as a way to restore confidence in older values and also to impose older aspects of Japanese culture onto the rapidly changing modernity of 1950s Japan.

Into this context, Masaki Kobayashi drops I Will Buy You (1956), which has recently been re-released by Criterion as part of the box set Against the System. Far from uplifting, this film is a dark and turbulent moral struggle for Kishimoto, an increasingly corrupt scout for the Toyo Flowers who is pursuing Kurita, a rising college star being sought by all the major professional teams.

I Will Buy You is only ostensibly about baseball. Kobayashi is more interested in the behind-the-scenes business of baseball, filled with deceit, bribery, family conflict, infidelity and an absurd amount of money. Absent is much sense of redemption or on-field heroics; the tension builds not to a last at bat in the ninth, but rather to the day when Kurita is to make his final decision and sign a professional contract. On the train to Kurita’s rural family home, Kishimoto looks around at his fellow scouts and adversaries, unblinking in his assessment: “A fox, a weasel, a snake and a worm … look at them: no brawn, all cunning. It’s the showdown, but when the night is over, a barely 20-year-old student will become a millionaire. What’s going on here?”

Kobayashi’s film is beautifully shot in heavy shadow, largely at night, where the game is played not on green grass but in smoky offices, dark cafes and cocktail lounges. It features Keiji Sada and a great performance by Yunosuke Ito as Kurita’s slimy, ulcer-addled agent.

A somewhat more uplifting view of the game comes from Jeffrey Nagel’s documentary The Bases are Loaded, which both tells some of the story of Cuban baseball and highlights a reunion between Connie Marrero, the oldest living Major League player, and Hall of Famer Monte Irwin in Havana in 2006. Both men played for the Alamendraes Club of Havana in the late ‘40s and both would have taken batting practice from a young warm-up pitcher named Fidel Castro. The same Fidel Castro, trading baseball stirrups for fatigues, would ban commercial baseball following his successful revolution of 1959 and immediately begin funneling state resources into the various Cuban Amateur Leagues around the country. Marrero served as a link between professional players formerly playing for corporate-sponsored teams and the new era of post-revolutionary baseball in Cuba.

The film’s teaser is “divided by politics; united by baseball,” and indeed the film does a good job of contrasting the under-resourced version of baseball in Cuba and the posher, heavily corporatized version we play here. But not all of these differences are economic: In Cuban parks, for example, there is a fifth inning coffee break instead of a seventh inning stretch. Nagel also focuses on how American politics and the Helms-Burton Act have limited the growth of Cuban baseball, denying resources and equipment that might help it grow.

The film is inescapably sentimental, but Nagel does a believable job of highlighting the importance of baseball to the Cuban national culture. And, for baseball romantics, seeing the provincial parks in Cuba without advertising smeared over the outfield walls or the indignities of the “Kiss-Cam,” so familiar to American fans, may be rather refreshing.

As the most historic of our sports continues to lose ground to football, basketball and pay-per-view atrocities like extreme fighting, American baseball fans may at least take comfort that in cinema cultures beyond our shores, moviegoers can still swing for the fences.

Warren Sprouse teaches in Cedar Rapids. He thinks that LeBron James might make a pretty good designated hitter if the basketball thing doesn’t work out.