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Beyond the Box Office: Oira no Yakyû (Japan, 1931)

A continuing series designed to look a little closer at the intersections of baseball and film history. You can read last week's entry here.

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So far in this meticulously-planned series which is certainly not made up on the fly, we have spent a bit of time looking at early American baseball films such as How the Office Boy Saw the Ball Game (1906), and Headin' Home (1920), Babe Ruth's inaugural film performance which arguably did as much for his media persona as his bat or his rubber-tire belly. Then last week we moved ahead in time a bit to talk about Panic on the Air, a 1936 Columbia B film which did little for the diamond itself, but allowed us to move into ancillary historical medias such as broadcast radio.

However, we would be remiss to limit our discussion simply to whatever this trajectory suggests. No, this doesn't mean I'm finally going to talk about Bull Durham or whatever, although I promise we will eventually get there--we have lots of time before the first pitch of the season is thrown. No, part of the reason I wanted to embark on this series was to force myself (and you, by extension) to look past all the so-called greatest hits of baseball cinema to over a century's worth of work, from all across the globe if possible. Not that it's going to be easy, of course.

You're probably well aware of the famous 1934 American League tour of Japan, often credited for popularizing the game across the shores of the Pacific. Much of the lore surrounding this famous moment of inter-war cultural exchange has rested firmly within the written archive--that is, until a few years ago when the National Baseball Hall of Fame uncovered home movies of the trip shot by Jimmie Foxx and his wife, Helen.

Gaudy music aside, this clip holds some pretty interesting stuff to be sure. But it really only tells half the story of how baseball in Japan grew into the massive cultural industry it is today, why and where the game is different from the stateside version, and importantly for us, what any of this has to do with Japanese cinema in the first place. But first, a brief history.

Baseball and Cinema in Japan

Much of what I'm going to regurgitate here for you can be found in Maseru Ikei's chapter in The Cambridge Companion to Baseball, as well as the introduction of Robert K. Fitts' Remembering Japanese Baseball, which is effectively a Glory of Their Times for the midcentury Nippon game. They are all great books and highly recommended.

The story goes that baseball was first introduced to Japan in 1872 or so by Horace Wilson, an American-born professor who had been brought to Japan by a state-run "modernization" program during the Meiji Period, during which Japan opened its borders following over two hundred years of self-imposed isolationism. Wilson supposedly introduced the game to his pupils who "needed exercise," or something like that. Either way, its origins in Japan seem to shroud it in the same kind of myth as America's requisite Elysian Fields, albeit with a slightly deeper track of receipts to tell the story.

Baseball may have been introduced by American educators abroad, but it would be entirely incorrect to imagine this as some sort of paternalistic cultural exchange, despite the fact that we Americans often love to paint our history in those very brushstrokes. In fact, by the end of the decade Japan would find itself with its first formal organized team formed by Hiroshi Hiraoka, a railroad engineer who had spent time in Boston through the other side of the Meiji period's industrial and economic progams.

And this is where it gets interesting for our purposes here. Cinema, like baseball, was introduced in Japan in much the same fashion, only two years after the "first" film screening by the Lumières in Paris. Set as they were during a period of rapid industrialization and intense economic growth, both institutions were quickly adopted within Japan as lucrative economic industries distinct from their European counterparts.

But let's take baseball, first. Just as American sports historians like to think of the game's mythic rural origins as a counterpart to the rapid industrialization of the country, Maseru Ikei suggests baseball served a similar cultural function during Japan's rapid industrialization during the Meiji Period. While traditional ways of life were being replaced with railroads, banks, and infrastructural growth, baseball here became a pedagogical tool for Japanese universities determined to retain a unique cultural identity. Ikei writes,

The game aquired the vernacular designation yakyu (literally translated "field ball") in the 1880s and became amalgamated with traditional cultural attributes and practices. This fusion produced a distinct system of play. The word yakyudo, or "the way of yakyu," was coined, signifying a highly spiritualized way of playing and training influenced by indigenous Japanese martial arts such as kendo, judo, and kyudo, which place a premium on stoicism and spiritual uplift, not just on winning.

But it wouldn't simply be the game's cultural utility separating it from its American counterpart. Through both Wilson, his fellow expatriate professor Albert Bates, and Hiraoka, Japanese baseball found itself institutionally split early on between universities and public schools (where it was first played) and the rapid influx of capital from the railroad industry which employed Hiraoka. While the first Japanese leagues were primarily made up of college and high school students, they would eventually give way to private teams owned by newspapers (yes, really), railroad corporations, and even movie studios.

And the same can be said for the cinema. Rather than "arriving" on Japanese shores as some complete, finished product, cinema, like baseball, was blended with an already discursive cultural industry with centuries of development behind it. Silent narrative films in Japan, for instance, had a narrator (Benshi) whose job it was to both voice the actors as well as describe what the audience was looking at--a role which developed out of choruses in kabuki theater and which would heavily complicate the arrival of sync sound technology in Japan.

All this, however, poses serious questions about how we perform histories of cultural objects such as baseball and cinema. Can we honestly say that the arrival of sync sound was "complicated" because of Japanese tradition which ran counter to Western film aesthetics? That assumes there is a "correct" film waiting for Japan on the other side of history. Can we say that some "true" form of baseball arrived overseas, and that what we are watching when we see former Mariner Wladimir Balentien break Sadaharu Oh's single-season record is a deviation from that "correct," American version?

I just love rhetorical questions. But no, let's be honest, you know where we're going with this. There is no one thing called Baseball, just as there is no one thing called The Cinema. And for our purposes here, the linking of the two seems historically, and culturally, significant: both baseball and cinema were received in both Japan and the West as distinctly "modern" objects, only to be inserted right back into historical discourses which molded them into what they are today.

Now the problem for us, here, is that I just can't find any baseball films from Japan which emerge at the same time as the few American clips we've looked at so far. I'm sure they are out there, but when you consider the fact that three-fourths of all silent Hollywood films have been lost to time, I can only imagine what happens to that number when you start looking across the globe. Nevertheless, I did stumble across this fascinating early animation from Yasuji Murata, which features a baseball match between rabbits and "racoon dogs."

Murata produced this short in 1931 at the Yokohama Cinema Company, which is where he spent his career making educational films during the inter-war period. The internet tells me its title (Oira no Yakyû) translates to Our Baseball Match, and it should tell you something about the state of the Japanese game before Babe Ruth's trip in 1934 way up there at the top of the page. In short: baseball was already massively popular in Japan by the 1920s, and we can only give Ruth so much credit.

In the very same year Oira no Yakyu was made, the Japanese newspaper Yomiuri Shimbun invited Ruth and other American players over for a series of games against college teams in the Tokyo Big-6 league, then the highest level of baseball in the country. Yomiuri had, in fact, been covering Ruth's star since his emergence in the states following Headin' Home, and the paper felt bringing the star over would only further help their sports coverage grow into an even more feasible economic reality. Ironically, it was precisely another movie commitment which kept Ruth from joining the tour in 1931, but that first trip went on all the same.

Now it's certainly fair to say that Ruth, along with the Japanese media, helped grow baseball's popularity overseas in the 1930's. But baseball was already massively popular through the collegiate Tokyo Big-6 league--it was simply not a professional game yet. And you can see it even in this short little animated film. I mean, think about how much actual baseball footage we saw towards the end of Headin' Home: Ruth hits a home run to save the day, and there was that little duel with the pitcher that included irises and close ups. But it was mostly a vehicle for Ruth to emerge as a media sensation, and much of the actual baseball footage we saw was simply from a stock archive waiting to be thrown away.

Here, we've got something else altogether. Clearly aimed at children, you kind of want to think about Baseball Bugs except this was made fifteen years earlier, and beat Warner Brothers to half the jokes in the first place.


We've got a rabbit catcher giving signs with his ears, and yes, like Headin' Home, he's framed in an iris. Moments after this, we see a curveball animated, although it moves up rather than down--ah, cartoon physics. There is a great bit with a radio announcer, and later, synchronized crowd cheers. There is a steal, a pickoff, and even at the end, an intentional walk to a heavy slugger:


It would be wrong to try and assume with such scant details the intent, effect, and reception of this short film. But I think it seems pretty clear that baseball was already firmly set within the media imaginary of Japan by the 1930s. In the short years that followed, Japan would start to see professional teams emerge during the arrival of Ruth's caravan in 1934 (the Japanese Ministry of Education wasn't too keen on letting student amateurs play against US pros again), and eventually it would all give way to the creation of the two-league NPB system still in operation today. But it's not all fun and games.

Next week we will be moving ahead to 1956, when Masaki Kobayashi excoriates professional baseball in Japan in his I Will Buy You, and I'd be lying if I said that wanting to write about that film had nothing to do with wanting to start this series in the first place. Until then, if anyone knows of more early Japanese baseball films, please, by all means, let me know where I can find them in the comments below.