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Japanese baseball epic returns to Vancity Theatre over the holidays

The Vancouver Asahi won People's Choice Award at this year's film fest

The Vancouver Asahi (Japan/Canada 2014). Director: Yuya Ishii. Cast: Satoshi Tsumabuki, Kazuya Kamenashi, Mitsuki Takahata, Aoi Miyazaki, Ryo Katsuji, Eri Ishida and Yusuke Kamiji. In Japanese with English subtitles. For showtimes visit

Equal parts Warner Brothers melodrama and Ozu shomin-geki, Yuya Ishii’s latest work, The Vancouver Asahi, recreates Vancouver’s long-lost “Japantown” on a studio set in Ashikaga, Tochigi Prefecture, north of Tokyo.

The fiction film, based in part on the real-life exploits of the legendary Asahi baseball team, received its world premiere at this year’s Vancouver International Film Festival.

“I saw Vancouver Asahi in Tokyo in not-quite finished form,” says Tony Rayns, the London-based East Asian film scholar and critic who programs VIFF’s Dragons and Tigers Asian film competition each year. “I went to the lab to see it. Because of the very obvious Vancouver connection the company hoped there would be interest from the festival in premiering the film.

“They thought it would be good for promotion in Japan because the film hasn’t opened in Japan yet. They are bringing over quite a number of people. Two of the young stars who are very hot in Japan right now will be here and they’re obviously going to have camera crews out in force. They’re going to be sending this footage back to Japan where it will serve as part of the promotional push in Japan for the release there.”

Up until the Asahi (made up of second generation Japanese/Canadians) formed in 1914, all baseball teams with Japanese players in North America competed in racially-segregated leagues against other Japanese and non-white teams.

Originally started as a youth squad the Asahi played their home games at the Powell Street Grounds (now Oppenheimer Park). They added recruits from a pre-existing team called The Nippons and joined the Vancouver City Senior Amateur Baseball league in 1919 to match forces against the likes of the Independent Longshoremen’s Association, Canadian Pacific Railway and Sprott-Shaw teams.

Over the years the Asahi (meaning “morning sun”) won many titles with a style of play called “brain ball” which focused on base running speed, bunts and defensive tactics to beat the bigger, stronger teams. They took four consecutive Terminal League Championships between 1930 and 1933 and five Pacific Northwest Championships from 1937-1941. In 1938 they claimed a triple-crown season as the top team in the Burrard, Commercial and Pacific Northwest Leagues.

Their Pacific Northwest Championship victory on Sept. 18, 1941 was the last game the Asahi played as a team. Two months later Canada was at war with Japan and all Japanese/Canadian citizens were branded as “enemy aliens” and dispersed into internment camps, never to return to their pre-World War Two lives.

Driving by Oppenheimer Park’s Tent City today it’s difficult to imagine the area was once home turf for the Asahi and a thriving Japanese community. The baseball team provided a cultural focus for the surrounding neighbourhood. Their success on the field, featuring homegrown second-generation/nisei talent such as shortstop Roy Yamamura and outfielder/base-stealer Tom Matoba, brought a sense of pride to the community and opened up lines of communication with the dominant culture.

Ishii’s film draws viewers deep into the history of the Asahi and its cultural milieu with an old school approach to filmmaking. The microcosm that was Japantown is writ large on the big screen with a sense of purpose and artistic vision that brings everything to life.

Most of the area around Powell Street has changed considerably since the golden age of the Asahi. “I think they did check out Vancouver and realized there’s nothing left of ’30s Vancouver,” says Rayns.  “There’s no location in Vancouver that would pass for the 1930s without a huge amount of modification — and also it would not be very practical to shoot today on the Vancouver waterfront. I don’t think anybody would agree to close down their businesses for weeks so a film crew could move in. What they ended up doing was building a huge, outdoor set in Japan. It’s in quite a rural place but it’s based meticulously on photos and drawings from the period which I saw. It was really quite impressive on a very big scale and the film was essentially shot there.”   

Several members of The Vancouver Asahi’s young cast, such as Kazuya Kamenashi who plays ace pitcher Roi “Roy” Naganishi, are big pop stars in Japan with established acting and music careers. Everyone hired for the film was also expected to know their baseball. The script may take some poetic license with box scores and timelines but that's all part of the story arc.

“They had to play baseball badly at least in the beginning,” says Rayns. “We have to see their learning curve because as far as I’m aware this is a completely faithful recreation of what actually happened. When the team started they were a disaster. They achieved absolutely nothing but they re-thought their strategy, they developed techniques and so on and they got better and then started to win games. The film has to reflect that. They have to play competent baseball and get better as the thing goes on.”
Married to film actress Hikari Mitsushima (who began her career as a teen idol singer in the J-pop group Folder 5) the 30-year-old Ishii has immaculate pop culture credentials himself. He’s had several of his films shown at VIFF over the years with the festival tracing his trajectory from an indie auteur to the more ambitious projects of an established filmmaker.

“He’s one of the most in-demand filmmakers there is in Japan,” says Rayns. “He came here for the first time seven years ago with his first feature which was actually his graduation film from film school. A film called Bare-assed Japan which is quite a modest indie feature — very small scale, small cast but very quirky, interesting, with unusual characters especially for a Japanese film where things tend to be rather conformist, I think it’s fair to say. His films were never at all conformist or they were rather critical about conformism. He stood out from the pack in some ways.

“We showed his first film in competition, it didn’t win as I recall, but it was well-received by the audience and he enjoyed his visit to Vancouver. We kept showing his films, not everything he made, but quite a lot. Three or four years ago we premiered what was his last big indie film, Mitsoko Delivers, as an awards night gala film. He came back to Vancouver and that was in The Vogue as I remember. It went down extremely well with a packed house. Last year he wasn’t here but we showed his first major commercial film The Great Passage which is sort of a star-led film about the unlikely subject of compiling a dictionary. It has big stars in it and he made something very fresh and surprising with it. We’ve followed his progress from a small indie filmmaker fresh out of film school through to making big budget films with big stars. He’s in seriously big demand. This guy could make three films a year if he could find the time and the energy to do it because there are that many companies clamouring to have him make things for them.”

Last year he won best director at the Japan Academy Awards for The Great Passage and The Vancouver Asahi pushes Ishii’s filmmaking to another level entirely. “It’s old fashioned but in the best sense,” says Rayns. “This is the kind of filmmaking that doesn’t happen so much anymore in these days of CGI and monsters and superheroes and such. It’s very beautifully done and with a modern spirit.”

Ishii and actors Satoshi Tsumabuki and Kazuya Kamenashi attended the world premiere.

This article was originally published in Sept. 2014.