Saturday, September 13, 2008

Movie Review: "Last Game - Saigo no Soukeisen"

ラストゲーム 最後の早慶戦 [official site]

If you are expecting to watch a movie about baseball, you will find that this is a movie about World War 2. If you are expecting to watch a movie about World War 2, you will find that this is a movie about baseball.

Soukeisen is a word meaning "Contest between Waseda University and Keio University", and while it can be used to describe pretty much any sport in existence, since the two universities have a long-standing rivalry in every sport, by far the best-known sports rivalry, and best-attended game, is the annual meetong between the two universities' baseball teams, which started over a century ago. Nowadays, the Soukeisen series is the last weekend of the Tokyo Big 6 University League season, and with the recent surge of stars on both teams, is a sellout event at Jingu Stadium.

But, that's not how it always was.

This movie takes place in 1943. After the 1942 season, in the midst of the war, the Japanese ministry of education dissolved the Tokyo Big 6 League, claiming that baseball was the "sport of the enemy". Despite that, the Waseda baseball club continued to practice baseball at Totsuka Stadium, mostly due to the leadership of a man named Suishu Tobita, who had been a player for Waseda near the turn of the century, and then spent years and years coaching the team afterwards. He was famous for a phrase, "一球入魂", which basically means "pour your soul into every pitch", and he tried to teach his players the spirit of baseball, as it were.

The movie opens with a beautiful breathtaking panorama of a reconstructed Totsuka Stadium, complete with Waseda baseball guys wearing the antique style uniforms and equipment, happily playing ball. You wouldn't even realize anything was strange about the situation, until one student, Junji Toda, goes home to meet with his family. His brother, a former star pitcher for the Waseda team, is dressed in full Japanese army uniform, and is apparently on leave to see his family for a few days. The brothers talk together, joke together, even note the old notches on the wall from where they used to measure height, seeing that they are now the same exact height.

After you've been introduced to the main character and his family, you meet his second family, the Waseda baseball team: his roomate, Kurokawa; the old housekeeper Wakasugi and her daughter (granddaughter?) Tomoko; the good-looking baseball manager/upperclassman Aizawa; and of course, the head coach and faculty sponsor of the team, Mr. Tobita.

Junji's brother heads off to war. They go to the stadium one last time, Junji holding his brother's sword like a bat, and his brother pitching the ball to him. "Take care of our family," he instructs him, and then he is gone.

Shortly afterwards, we see the newspaper headlines: the Japanese government will no longer allow university students to be deferred from the draft. Starting in December, all men aged 20 or above must prepare to go to the front lines of battle in the war. (You see, it's a war movie after all.)

The president of Keio, Mr. Koizumi, comes to visit Mr. Tobita. He has a request from the Keio baseball team: "We'd like to play against Waseda one final time before we go off to war. Let's make some good memories." Tobita agrees, and when he tells the team about the proposal, they are overjoyed.

Unfortunately, there's two major things blocking the event from progressing. One, the president of Waseda University won't allow the game to happen, because of the serious situation in Japan brought about by the war. Two, they can't do it at Jingu stadium, since it's being used for army training.

Even Totsuka Stadium gets taken over by army training; there are scenes where the baseball club is practicing on the same field as the military training for students. A baseball rolls over and the military captains yell at the ball players to "stop disturbing their important work", before Tobita steps in to prevent any further problems.

Well, Waseda's team continues practicing baseball anyway, because they believe in Mr. Tobita, and they believe in baseball, and it's really the only happy thing they have anyway, in the light of having to go off to war. (Well, the only thing, aside from every member of the baseball team writing a love letter to the housekeeper's daughter, but that's beside the point.) The Waseda president continues to insist that there will be no game, but in the meantime, the events keep building up to everyone telling Tobita they're counting on him to make it happen, such as Junji's brother dying and his whole family getting into a huge dramatic argument over whether Junji should be allowed to continue playing baseball.

So naturally with some perseverance and a lot of talking, and eventually just agreeing to go ahead and have the game behind the backs of the Powers That Be, as an "unofficial friendly game" the final Waseda-Keio game is scheduled to be held on October 16, 1943, at Totsuka Stadium.

In the movie, as in real life, the Waseda team plasters the Keio team 10-1 (as the story goes, the Keio team hadn't been practicing and the game happened with very short notice), but that isn't the important thing. The important thing is that the players got together for that final game and created a memory before going off to die in war. The scenes were reenacted as they supposedly happened in real life: the president of Keio sits with the students instead of in the nice seats. The teams got up and sang EACH OTHER'S fight songs as a salute after the game.

And naturally, footage of these guys is made to blur into the actual footage of the students taking part in military training five days later, to give some "names to faces", as it were.

The only thing is, aside from Tobita and Koizumi, none of the names of players in the movie are actually of real people from the real Soukeisen. The closest is probably that they had a guy portraying Keio's legendary player Kaoru Betto, but that wasn't the name they used for the character.

I watched this movie on a Friday afternoon in Urawa, and I would guess the average age of the patrons in the theater was around 60. Most of them were crying by the end (including this older woman down the row from me who was outright bawling). I have to admit that I had to bite back tears at a few scenes near the end; if nothing else, the movie really did capture the urgency of playing the final game plus the strong bonds that these players had to each other and to baseball itself, and how many obstacles they had to overcome just for that one final day in the sun before going off to die in the war.

I'm not sure whether I'd recommend this movie to non-Japanese people, to be honest. If you are interested in historical baseball movies and just want to see some gorgeous reconstructions of college ball from the WWII era, it's definitely worth it for that aspect, but if you really start thinking about all of the ramifications of the war, you'll get really depressed, I think. I felt distinctly uncomfortable leaving the theater, just for being an American, and I have to admit I'm almost worried about whether it's politically incorrect for me to review this movie at all.

I do think it is an important story to be told, though.

Another English preview of the movie is here in the Daily Yomiuri, written a few months before the movie came out, but has good background.

And here is an English article from Waseda's newspaper from a few years ago, reflecting on the last Soukeisen, including quotes from Takeo Mori (the real second baseman in the game) and some photos and a shot of a scorecard from the game.

Wikipedia article in Japanese about the final game: 出陣学徒壮行早慶戦, which means "farewell Soukeisen game to send students off to the battle front", essentially.

On that note, today is the first day of baseball for the Tokyo Big 6 University League! The weekend opens with Meiji playing against Tokyo and Keio playing against Hosei, and next weekend Waseda and Rikkio will join the fray. The season continues until the weekend of November 1st, when we can see a much less depressing Soukeisen. I, for one, am really looking forward to seeing some exciting college baseball games this fall.

2 comments:

Anonymous said...

Thanks for your thoughtful synopsis of the movie, and your own thoughts are also much appreciated. I was listening for the perhaps two hundredth time to Chihiro Onitsuka's Hotaru and I wanted to know something of what it is about. The lyrics are unbearably sad (she does that so well) and apparently the song was recruited for use in the movie. I can't believe no one has left you a comment yet!

gordon

Deanna said...

Thanks.

I changed commenting systems at some point a few years ago and lost all of my comments from before then -- I think there were some, but no longer. Oops. Thanks for writing in and I'm glad you appreciated this!