One of the first big events at the 2014 Hawaii International Film Festival was the U.S. premiere of the new Japanese film The Vancouver Asahi. Directed by Japanese filmmaker Yuya Ishii and starring Satoshi Tsumabuki (from The Fast and the Furious: Tokyo Drift), the film is roughly based on the story of Japanese immigrants in Canada during the onset of World War II and the Second Sino-Japanese War with China. As with many Canadian and American immigrants throughout history, the Japanese-Canadian community faced racism and ostracism from the majority white population of British Columbia, and many of the sons of these workers used baseball as a way to deal with those difficulties. This film roughly follows the story of the Japanese Vancouver Asahi baseball team in the 1930s as they struggle against the overwhelming strength and skill of the white Canadian baseball teams while battling the discrimination, xenophobia, and unemployment they deal with on a daily basis.
One of the most important aspects about creating a film based on historical events is the ability to recreate that time period in which those events occurred. This is one of many areas where The Vancouver Asahi succeeded. The set of 1930s Japantown in Vancouver brought that era right onto the screen and made me feel like I had travelled back in time. Every little detail was meticulously included, from the rickety wooden steps that led up to a Japanese home to the painted advertisements on the wooden fences of the baseball park to the vintage tube radios families used to listen to ball games. I can imagine that a great amount of the budget went to recreating these set pieces. The costumes were immaculate, right down to how the actors wore them. Trash rolled through the streets to give me the feeling of being in squalor, which was how many of these immigrants tended to live. Poverty was rampant and even the polarity between the more affluent whites was displayed when they would cross paths with the Japanese.
Reggie Kasahara, played by Satoshi Tsumabuki, seemingly nailed his character right down to the way he walked. Playing shy and reserved, he does well to give us an idea of how these young immigrants’ sons lived as they fought against discrimination as well as the life choices they had to make as they grew up. Much of the supporting cast also performed well, notably Koichi Sato, who played Reggie’s father Seiji. Seiji played an important part in showing us the family tension created by the difficulties of living in Canada as an immigrant family. Seiji, so focused on finding work in order to pay for his drinking habit, constantly butted heads with Reggie as well as with his wife. Reggie’s baseball hobby helped him to release that tension and give him reason to hopefully one day reconcile with his father.
As good as most of the acting was, I had some qualms with the acting provided by the white Canadians in the movie. Every single white actor played their parts with a strange quality of stiffness. Many of their lines seemed forced and with little emotion. Honestly, I cared very little for any of it and I thought that it really took a piece out of the film with that kind of distraction. Even the angry old foreman that supervised the Japanese workers and constantly littered them with threats was almost played with a very fake quality of demeanor.
Another aspect of the film that I enjoyed was the sound design. Foley was recorded and synced very well and even the quality of effect positioning within the field of sound was on-point. The soundtrack was decent and not distracting, however the J-Pop song played over the credits was awkward, but I learned that supporting actor Kazuya Kamenashi is a well-known J-Pop star in Japan, and why wouldn’t a Japanese film have some kind of J-Pop tune in its soundtrack?
As is important in Japanese culture, this film revolves around community and family, as well as overcoming adversity. One important aspect of Japanese familial culture is that of contributing to the perpetuation of the family as being the most important thing one can do. This cultural identity is one centerpiece to this film, as frustrated families berate their adolescent sons when they leave work to play baseball, even though the sport is itself a centerpiece to the Japanese community in Vancouver.
Following the credits, director Yuya Ishii and supporting actress Aoi Miyazaki spoke briefly with the audience and received a round of applause.
All in all, The Vancouver Asahi was a wholesome, feel-good type of movie that the entire family can enjoy while at the same time educating about important historical events that may go untaught in schools. Although I had minor qualms with a tiny bit of the acting, I don’t believe it distracted enough to receive the message of the film, but had it been better it would have contributed greatly. Baseball is a community sport in that it brings together not only the entire team on the field in order to compete and win, but it involves the local community as well. Especially, baseball in Vancouver brought together the Japanese community in Vancouver during a difficult time in history, and also helped bring opportunities to overcome the challenges Japanese-Canadians faced in the early 20th century.
Be sure to check out the on-location video report here.
The Vancouver Asahi opens in Japanese theaters December 2014.
3.5 out of 5 stars.