POV: What is Kokoyakyu about?
Kenneth Eng: It is a documentary film about two high schools as they embark on their annual quest to get to Koshien, a sacred baseball tournament that’s been happening since 1915. We profile the two coaches of the teams and show how the Japanese have turned baseball into education.
Alex Shear: The film follows an underdog team from a small public school — Tennoji — and a powerhouse team from a private school that has already won national championships — Chiben — as they both try to make it to Koshien Stadium.
POV: Could you explain what Koshien is?
Kenneth: Koshien is an annual baseball tournament that’s been happening since 1915. It involves about 4,000 high schools, and it’s a single-elimination tournament. All of the high schools in Japan have a chance to make it to Koshien, but obviously, not everyone can go, since in the end, there are only 49 spots. It’s really a national treasure in Japan. The event happens at the end of the summer every year, and it’s during a holiday season called Obon, which is the festival of the dead. It’s a time when everyone is returning home to their families, taking a break from work, and kokoyakyu — high school baseball — is on TV. Everyone goes back to their roots and cheers for their hometown, their high school, until there are really two teams left. That’s when Japan is basically divided into two sections, each rooting for one team or the other.
POV: What was your motivation for making this film?
Kenneth: Alex and I both love baseball. When Hideki Matsui and Ichiro Suzuki came over to the U.S. to play in the Major Leagues, we wanted to know more about their background. However, there was not much information about their history available. Alex read books and did more research and discovered that high school baseball was where it’s at.
Alex: When Ichiro Suzuki became the first Japanese position player in the Major Leagues, Ken and I realized that neither of us knew very much about Japanese baseball. It seemed strange that even hardcore baseball fans like us had zero knowledge of Japanese baseball. We were talking one day about the film we really wanted to make and we thought, Japanese baseball would be great: We love baseball, it would make a great cross-cultural educational film, and Japan is endlessly fascinating.
When I read the “Schoolboys of Summer” chapter in Robert Whiting’s book You Gotta Have Wa, I realized that high school baseball was the essence of Japanese baseball. Baseball started in Japan in a high school, and the high school tournament at Koshien Stadium is the most popular sports event in the country. Koshien has it all — young men under intense pressure experiencing overwhelming emotion, surrounded by pageantry and culture from every part of Japan — and it’s baseball! I knew it would make a great film.
We wanted to take people inside this incredible world, where baseball is something deep, spiritual and educational. We always felt that certain aspects of baseball are inherently challenging and force you to grow as a person. In the U.S., that makes us baseball nerds, but in Japan, it’s common knowledge that baseball has a deeper meaning. We also wanted people to experience a celebration of Japanese culture and a classic coming-of-age story. We want people to realize that although traditions may vary in different cultures, many of our experiences are universal.
POV: Tell us about the process of filming in Japan.
Kenneth: In Japan, we followed two teams, from Tennoji High School and Chiben High School, for about four and a half months. Luckily, Masa-sensei, the coach of Tennoji High School’s team, welcomed us with open arms and wanted us to film them. He basically used us as a lesson for the kids, saying that if they couldn’t act normal or calm in front of us, how would they be able to play under such pressure in a baseball tournament? He saw it as a positive thing to have us following the players.
At Chiben, Coach Takashima, or as I call him, the samurai coach, welcomed us as well. To us he was the archetype of what a Japanese baseball coach should be, but he was also really secretive, and he was afraid that we would see things that he would be embarrassed about. So there was some distance between the players at Chiben and us. We weren’t really allowed to really get close to them. That’s part of the reason why we chose to follow the cheer squads to illuminate the students at Chiben.
POV: Coach Masa and Coach Takashima are very different from each other. Tell us a little bit more about what they were like.
Alex:What makes Masa-sensei unique is that he is a progressive coach in Japan, in that he’s very encouraging to the kids. He hugs them, he is reassuring, and these aren’t things that are typical in Japanese baseball. In the case of a public school like Tennoji, the focus is really on academics and on the life of the kids after high school. So they don’t have to focus so much on winning the tournament, and they can really focus on what’s going to benefit these kids in the long run. So I think the lessons that Masa-sensei tries to teach are teamwork, compassion, thinking about other people before yourself and that hard work will pay off in the end.
Coach Takashima is famous all over Japan. He’s really a legendary figure. He has three national championships, and they call him a living samurai. He has so much charisma, and he acts very mysterious. So he was great as well.
POV: What are the themes of Kokoyakyu?
Kenneth: Kokoyakyu is a study about how baseball can be transformed and used as an educational tool to teach kids values. It’s also a coming-of-age movie about kids dealing with loss, how one can try to take something positive out of failure. The film is also a meditation and observation about Japanese life today.
I think this film is also a cultural bridge. The whole purpose of the film was to destroy the stereotypes we have of Japanese culture and Japanese people and deepen our understanding of modern-day Japan.
Alex: This is a film about sports, but it’s really a film about growing up in Japan, about having a dream and about pursuing that dream through all kinds of adversity.
POV: What was the most satisfying part about making the film?
Kenneth: I think my favorite moment of being in Japan was when Alex and I finally get the chance to play baseball with the team from Tennoji High School. It was after they had lost that final game, the seniors had retired, and the younger kids were going to a retreat hours away from Osaka, on a remote island. We went there with them, and, to our surprise, the team presented us with uniforms. They put Alex and me on opposite teams, and we did an hour of warm-ups with the players. We hadn’t played baseball since before we left to make the film, so we were totally winded and out of shape, but so happy to be playing baseball again. I got three hits. It was the highlight of my life.
Alex: During the game, the students really made us feel at home. We had a little cultural exchange right there in the game. At the beginning of the game they always bow, so we bowed with them and went to our positions. At the end of the game, as an American thing, we always line up and do high-fives, so we made them all do that. And during the game, as much as they tried to let me get a hit — I mean literally just feeding the ball over the plate — I couldn’t do it! I hadn’t swung a bat in months at that point; it was hopeless. But I did make some plays in the outfield. Actually, Ken hit a ball right to me and I caught it, so he was out. So that was my highlight right there. I couldn’t let him get a hit on me!