July 25, 2006

Koukou Yakyuu

A compelling POV documentary about Japan's annual national high school baseball championships, known as Koushien, the name of the stadium where the finals of the single-elimination tournament are held. 4000 teams participate, though only 49 actually go to Koushien. That number comes from the 47 prefectures (roughly equivalent to U.S. states), plus the two metropolitan areas, Tokyo and Osaka.

The documentary focuses on two schools, Tennouji and Chiben, playing in the Wakayama and Osaka regionals. The former was a pleasant surprise. After living for a year in Osaka, I actually know where Tennouji is (though I've never been to the school).

More than anything else, the film emphasizes how the pedagogical relationship between high school and college is exactly opposite in the U.S. and Japan. In the U.S., the purpose of high school is to prepare a student to get admitted to the college of his choice. In Japan, college entrance exams determine whether a student would hypothetically be capable of graduating from the college of his choice.

This means that once a student matriculates, the worst is over and that high-intensity ganbaru spirit takes a breather. Correspondingly, there are no university sports competitions that can approach the importance of Koushien. As Bobby Valentine observes, "It's Texas high school football combined with the NCAA [basketball] championship, as far as excitement and passion and commitment are concerned."

And not surprisingly, star high school baseball players get the kind of preferential treatment typically associated with college jocks in the U.S.

Even though neither of the schools profiled makes it past the preliminary rounds, this is definitely a case of too little time for too much material. I'd like to see the subject get the Ken Burns treatment: following a more diverse collection of schools—including schools from places way out in the sticks like Tottori—all the way to the Koushien finals.

The supporting cast also deserved more screen time. The teacher/coaches seemed straight out of central casting. They can't all be that perfect, can they? Or maybe they can. On the other hand, what's with the yell leaders, who are so intense—way more so than the players—that it's scaaaary? And what's with the managers, who are usually girls? How does that work? I want to know more.

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