Masaki Kobayashi was born in 1916, exactly one year after Osaka's Asahi Shimbun daily sponsored their first national baseball tournament. He entered Tokyo's prestigious Waseda University a year prior to the arrival of Babe Ruth's 1934 American League caravan, refused promotion during the war as a sign of protest, and eventually found himself in an American detention camp at Okinawa before winding up as an assistant director at Shochiku studios. He made twenty-two films over the course of thirty-three years. He died in 1996, and his New York Times obituary read that "the most one can hope for in Kobayashi's world is dignity while evil inevitably springs from dogma and pitilessness." This is why you are reading about Masaki Kobayashi on a Seattle Mariners website.
Well, that's a bit disingenuous. You're really reading about Masaki Kobayashi because you read about the history of Japanese baseball last week, and then you watched a little short cartoon where rabbits throw reverse curveballs and tanukis hit dingers with their tails. We've still got a ways to go before we get to anything made in the past twenty years or so, and while I have little idea what that's going to look like, watching this only confirmed that we think far too small when we hear the words "baseball film." Not only across years, but oceans.
I Will Buy You
112 min. 1956, Japan
Directed by Masaki Kobayashi
After the war, Kobayashi was not a happy man. I suppose saying that is a little problematic--I never met the guy, and and it's always dangerous to extrapolate any personal information out of art produced within discrete complex systems. But by the end of this post, I think you'll probably agree with me.
After returning to Shochiku studios as an assistant director in 1946, Kobayashi spent a few years working on social dramas set in contemporary Japan (gendaigeki), a genre the studio came to be known for through films by the great Yasujiro Ozu and others. But by 1953, he was suddenly blaming the war not on a few wayward soldiers but the entire regime itself--an act which saw his The Thick-Walled Room censured and shelved for three years. He would go on to make films about suicide, war tribunals, and ghosts, and is perhaps best known for a nine-hour film of a socialist pacifist conscripted into the Japanese army during the Second World War. So no, we're not gonna fade to black as Wally Yonamine walks the Giants off in this here picture.
The film opens on Daisuke Kishimoto, a scout for the "Toyo Flowers," quickly giving up on a young pitching prospect after learning he lost a finger in a factory accident. Kishimoto is bothered by this--but mostly because he wasted a trip out into the country only to learn that the whole thing had been for nothing. But luckily for the Flowers, there's a new target all the scouts have their eyes on.
Kishimoto is instructed to track down one Goro Kurita, a college-aged wunderkid who hits for power with plus-speed on the bases. A great early scene shows Kishimoto paying just as much attention to Kurita on the field as the other scouts peppering the crowd, catching their gaze only when a foul ball leads his binoculars into the outfield stands.
Realizing his competition is steep, Kishimoto tries to get in contact with Kurita privately only to encounter Ippei Kyuki, essentially Kurita's private coach and manager. Kyuki is a middle-aged man, wholly invested in Kurita's future at the expense of his own health and well being. He is repeatedly shown coughing and wheezing while suffering from gallstones--all he wants is for his surrogate son to make the right decision for his future security.
Of course, we're not gonna get that much joy in a Kobayashi movie. Just as his war films brutally excoriate the military, here Kobayashi rages against unchecked post-war capitalism--subtly introducing doubt into the moral conviction behind every single character portrayed on screen. Very quickly we start to see this bidding war over the country's next superstar amounting to little more than a transformation of people into numbers, social relations into pure exchange. Suddenly it turns out Kyuki may or may not have been a spy for China during the war. He has a gambling habit. His mistress is Kurita's girlfriend's sister. To make matters worse, it turns out Kyuki is probably just faking his ailments to make himself seem more trustworthy.
Kobayashi might not depict much of the ins-and-outs of Japanese baseball in the park, but the basics are there. There is scant information available in English on this film, so I haven't the slightest idea what is newsreel footage, constructions, or even visual tricks--but we see things such as the famous crowd chants being led by a cheer captain,
as well as subtle depictions of baseball's entanglement with the Japanese newspaper industry.
Last week we briefly glossed how the rise of professional baseball in Japan was facilitated by the newspaper industry. Following, or because of Ruth's 1934 tour, Osaka's Asahi Shimbun paper organized the first professional team comprised of college players, eventually morphing into the Tokyo Giants (now the Yomiuri Giants) and giving way to what would become the NPB. But college and high school baseball long had much more popularity, due in part to the massive yearly tournaments (which still take place) as well as the game's relative amateur status.
Of course, by the mid-50's the professional baseball world had blossomed with corporate sponsorship. By the time Kobayashi is shooting I Will Buy You, NPB had broken into two separate leagues, complete with a yearly championship series as well as massive amounts of capital coming in from disparate industries which did not always reach every team's payroll. Sound familiar? To Kobayashi, adapting this from a novel by Minoru Ôno, the stakes of this was potentially as dangerous to the human character as blind allegiance to nationalism or imperialism.
By the end of the film, Kurita's contract has blossomed into a complex deal including money for him, his coach Kyuki, and something for his family living in rural Japan (who aren't too keen about their son leaving them behind, mind you). Without spoiling too much of the plot, we start doubting those we trusted and reconsidering those we doubted. The whole process viciously pits everyone against one another and we're suddenly in typical Kobayashi territory: rather than accepting some sort of peace within one's existential prison, as Ozu might do, we're lashing out against corrupt forces bigger than ourselves. And there's not much else we can do about any of it.
I mean, this is really the interesting part (and stop reading if you don't want spoilers). Every year we hear about posting fees and watch teams trip over their own feet trying to sign Tanakas and Cespedeses and Ryus and so on and so on--and in the American media anyway, it unfolds exactly like Kobayashi warns us of. Players in a posting system are seen as little more than commodities which produce new market value for profit-seeking corporations competing in two arenas: the field and the boardroom. And then we're suddenly shocked when we read about Puig's harrowing journey from Cuba to the Dodgers. The details and specifics of this fiction and fact differ, but Kobayashi might argue the forces behind the both are ultimately one and the same.
As Kurita returns home to make his decision, his brother winds up in jail for assault, and his mother disowns him. His coach Kyuki ends up dying of his all-too-real gallstones, alone, at the same moment Kurita stands outside posing for promotional photos as a member of his new team.
The film's penultimate scene gives us a very complex deep-staged triangle between Kishimoto, Kurita's girlfriend, and Kurita's weeping mother. Note how deep the space goes into the frame (it's a really poor quality image, I know, this is the only available print), suggesting not simply the emotional weight of the situation but also the wreckage left behind following Kurita's decision to abandon those closest to him for lights and glory.
And after that, back in the city, a smiling Kurita alone at the plate.
Isn't baseball fun?
Of course it isn't all death and despair, and hopefully next week we can find something with more on-field shenanigans in place of bitter existential woe. But then again, what would a Seattle Mariners blog be without any of the nouns in that last sentence?
Stream I Will Buy You on Hulu Plus here.
Available from The Criterion Collection here.