It stars Tom Selleck as an American baseball player forced to play for the Chuunichi Dragons in Japan. Tomoko bought it for me because she knows I'll watch anything and she'd wanted to watch it. She's a baseball fan and her team is the Dragons. The film's actually okay, although the romantic subplot is lame, I'm pretty sure the studio cut important script elements and Selleck's antics in Japan made me cringe for an hour.
You'll know exactly what's going to happen, of course. You could tell your friends the plot without even having seen it. Selleck's going to be culturally insensitive and butt heads with his manager, but eventually they'll learn to co-operate for the sake of the team, etc.
There's more to the film than that, though. It's the lead character, I think. He's no bland everyman. Selleck finds something likeable in the character and his flaws, but at the same time he's a boor whose behaviour in Japan is horrifying. He's making no effort whatsoever to fit in. After being told that it's offensive to spit on the pitch, for instance, on three occasions we see him spit there. When trying to gee up his Japanese fellow players, he says "we need a little kamikaze". He's rude to the team manager. Of course he eventually mellows, but for a solid hour I wanted to punch him in the face. The shocking thing of course is that people like that are real. He's not even a caricature. Professional sports players aren't necessarily the most intellectual and sensitive of people, so there are plenty of American baseball players who've accepted a job in Japan and behaved exactly like this.
I accept the realism. I acknowledge that there are people in real life who behave like this and worse. They're completely different from those of us who chose to go to Japan, since they never wanted to be there and they're only interested in the money. However if I had to spend time in their presence, I'd want to punch them in the face too.
Different people have had different reactions to him. As a former gaijin in Japan, I sometimes found him hard to watch. Tomoko was more forgiving. She's certainly right that it would be wrong to judge the character by the standards of the people I'd known there. Then you have idiots like this chap for the Washington Post:
"the humor is so condescending and the attitude toward the Japanese so smugly superior"
That's an opinion only worth noticing as an indicator of ignorant reactions. The superiority in this film does NOT lie in Selleck's character, although admittedly he later makes some valid points about Ken Takakura's shortcomings as a manager.
That's the spine of this film and it's a strong one. Now for the problems.
Aya Takanashi is a bad actress in a worse role. She's fine in Japanese, but the effort of speaking lines in English is sucking the power from her performance. She's capable of line delivery, but that's it. It's a masterclass in how to fail when it counts in screen acting. This was her first film and she must have thought it would be her big break, but in fact she hardly worked again.
She can't be blamed for how badly written her role is, though. Tomoko hated her and we suspect that's true of every Japanese person who saw this movie. In America, she'd seem fine. In Japan, the bath scene makes her look like a slut (and indeed Tomoko's name for her after that was "The Slut"), while that heart-to-heart with Selleck in front of all her co-workers is just... no. Ever. You don't. In terms of Japanese cultural sensitivity, it's as bad as Selleck's faux passes. Then we have the "which is more important, baseball or me?" line, which is a painfully Hollywood question to ask of a professional baseball player. Tomoko was coming up with all kinds of unkind speculations afterwards about the character's motivations, none of which had anything to do with genuine feelings for Selleck.
This movie had five writers, none of them Japanese. Quelle surprise.
Then we have the baseball. I have little knowledge and no interest in baseball, yet I thought there wasn't enough of it in this movie. We're told repeatedly that Sellect has a "hole" in his batting. That's a plot point. He repeatedly refuses to listen to anyone on the subject. Then, suddenly, it seems that this hole has disappeared and we have no idea how or when.
Similarly, there's a disagreement between Selleck and Takakura about how to run a baseball team. Takakura treats it as war and everyone's scared of him, while Selleck thinks the players would do better if allowed to relax and have fun. We see this discussion. We see that Takakura's taking the advice on board. Then, suddenly, it's the last game of the season and there's a vague sense that the team might perhaps be playing in a more Selleck-like fashion, but we know no details or how this transformation might have happened.
I see two possibilities. Either (a) the writers deliberately left gaping wounds in their script, or (b) the studio got nervous about having too much baseball in their baseball movie. You want normal people to see this film! Don't start talking Baseball Nerd! You'll scare off Joe Public! Similarly, the film gives no sense of the progression of the Japanese baseball season and so Tomoko was startled when suddenly they're playing the last game of the year.
That said, though, the film's a surprisingly strong time capsule of Japan and its baseball world in 1992. (The clothes and hairstyles made me think 1980s, but that's not too far out.) For Tomoko, it was a massive nostalgia hit. The producers went to Japan and filmed at the Chuunichi Dragons' stadium in Nagoya, which in itself dates the film since these days the Dragons play in Nagoya Dome. The scoreboard isn't authentic, but everything else is the real deal. Apparently they used 100,000 extras altogether for baseball crowds and other scenes, this being in pre-CGI days. (Roger Ebert assumed Fred Schepisi was being really deft with stock footage. Not so.) Furthermore, they get their Japanese baseball right. That probably had to be the Dragons vs. the Giants, while the Japanese baseball scene was indeed much weaker back then. These days, their national team is capable of beating America's, even if their professional leagues can't rival the money and star power of their American counterparts.
(On the downside, it was obvious to Tomoko that the actors weren't baseball professionals, although the editors were trying to hide it. The celebrations we see when the Dragons beat the Giants are a pathetic shadow of the real thing. Also, apparently the inevitable "take off your shoes!" scene when Selleck reaches the players' changing area is inaccurate. There, shoes are okay.)
Embarrassing confession: until afterwards, I thought I was watching Burt Reynolds. I'd forgotten that there was such a person as Tom Selleck.
This isn't a great film. It's a formulaic sports flick, in outline indistinguishable from hundreds of others. I also don't much like the Japanese cast in general, with for instance Selleck's translator feeling more like a comic character than a human being who can feel angered and insulted. (The famous Ken Takakura is, of course, an exception.) However Tom Selleck's character and Japan together give the film more life and meaning than it perhaps deserves. Despite everything, I liked it. I'd say it's worth a watch.
"I hate this place."