An award-winning director and all-star cast tell one of the great Japanese-Canadian stories with reverence, humanity and gentle humour.
The Vancouver Asahi (2014)
Directed by Yuya Ishii Starring Satoshi Tsumabuki, Kazuya Kamenashi, Mitsuki Takahata, Aoi Miyazaki, Ryo Katsuji, Yusuke Kamiji, Sosuke Ikematsu and Koichi Sato Screenplay by Satoko Okudera
Director Yuya Ishii and an all-star cast tell a powerful Japanese-Canadian story. Based on the true story of Vancouver’s Asahi baseball team in the 1930s, a source of pride and solidarity in a community facing much racism and prejudice.
” The film leaves the audience with much to cheer about—and reflect upon.”
The story of the Vancouver Asahi—an amateur baseball team formed in Vancouver’s Japantown by young Canadians of Japanese heritage in the 1930s—is one of the most compelling and emblematic pieces of Japanese-Canadian history. In their early days, the hapless Asahi regularly suffered humiliating defeats at the hands of their physically larger Caucasian competitors until the young Nikkei devised a strategy that transformed them into serious contenders. The strategy, called “brain ball,” focused on speed rather than power and left opposing teams confused, frustrated and often defeated. With their newfound winning streak, the team became a source of great pride and solidarity for a community facing much racism and prejudice. Sadly, the Asahi, and the entire Japanese-Canadian community, was soon to fall victim to the circumstances of war and terrible persecution by the Canadian government. With the outbreak of the Second World War, Japanese Canadians were branded “enemy aliens” regardless of citizenship, cultural upbringing or national allegiance. Their possessions, businesses and homes were seized—never to be returned— and families were divided and driven into cramped internment camps, ghost towns and work camps in the interior of British Columbia In 2014, Japan Academy Award–winning director Yuya Ishii (The Great Passage, Sawako Decides) turned this tale into a major Japanese motion picture featuring a who’s who of top film stars. Satoshi Tsumabuki plays reluctant team captain Reggie Kasahara, Kazuya Kamenashi as his hot-headed pitcher Roy Naganishi, and Mitsuki Takahata—in the film’s standout performance—as Emi Kasahara, a student with first-hand experience of anti-Japanese prejudice whose passion for the team becomes a major rallying point. Scenes depicting the harsh realities of their lives in sawmills, fisheries and cramped living quarters are shrouded in rain and gas-lit gloom. The sun only seems to shine on the Asahi and their supporters when they take the field.
Asahi is an earnest, lovingly made film of great humanity and respect for its subject. Vancouver’s Japantown was carefully recreated in Japan; the settings are fleshed out with computer-generated Rocky Mountains, forests and ocean liners, with local American military personnel acting as extras in the crowd scenes. It is well-acted by a strong cast and contains some very moving scenes. The film is also very “Japanese” in tone—filled with coded silences and quietly underplayed scenes that might otherwise have been employed as major “rah-rah” moments in a Western-style sports movie. Ishii also infuses the proceeding with his trademark gentle humour.
Asahi is not a perfect film, though, and Ishii falls victim to his own ambition and reverence for the material. He simply tries to do too much; Asahi is at times a history lesson, a buddy movie, a family drama, a sports film and a study of racial intolerance and the Japanese immigrant experience. As a result, the film tends to lose focus; major actors like Aoi Miyazaki are introduced only to be quickly relegated to mere stadium spectators. One feels that much has been left on the editing-room floor.
These are minor complaints, though. While not quite a grand slam, Asahi is a solid hit that will leave Japanese-Canadian audiences with much to cheer about—and other Canadians with much to reflect upon. The Vancouver Asahi opened the 2014 Vancouver International Film Festival where it received the Audience Choice Award. An entertaining and edifying retelling of an important Canadian story.
The Vancouver Asahi’s Toronto premiere is scheduled at the Toronto Japanese Film Festival in June.