The mythology of baseball in America conjures up images of bucolic ease, where the game is an escape from the pressures of daily life.
Not so in Japan. When baseball was first introduced there in the 1870s, the concept of sports as pure leisure didn’t exist in the country. Instead, baseball was embraced as part of the martial education of Japanese youth. These origins lend Japanese baseball a distinct flavor that reflects the culture, a subject examined in director Ema Ryan Yamazaki’s incisive documentary, Koshien: Japan’s Field of Dreams, which airs on ESPN tonight at 7 EST.
The title takes its name from the stadium that hosts the country’s annual high school championship tournament, where Japan’s baseball traditions are most ardently expressed. Practices for Koshien, as the tournament is known, are year-round, highly regimented and grueling. Players go through their drills with militaristic precision, and not a single batting helmet is out of place. The field at the stadium is considered sacred ground; losing players are given bags to collect dirt as a keepsake.
Koshien captivates Japan for two weeks every summer. It made legends of American Major Leaguers like Hideki Matsui, Yu Darvish and Daisuke Matzusaka years before most Americans had heard of them. Los Angeles Angels star Shohei Ohtani says in the film: “Koshien is like our World Series.”
The film follows Yokohama Hayato High School, coached by Mizutani, a stern disciplinarian who is emblematic of the traditional ways. His authority is absolute, and among his players, there’s a prevailing ethos of self-sacrifice and collectivism that will come across as foreign and perhaps inspiring to viewers in the United States, where wearing a mask to combat COVID-19 is considered by many as an infringement on their freedom.