Film Review: ‘Kano’

Big budget Taiwan film 'Kano'

Masatoshi Nagase gives a masterful performance as a baseball coach in this lengthy but big-hearted 1930s sports saga.

A lengthy but big-hearted sports saga set in 1931, “Kano” traces how a ragtag baseball team made up of farm boys from southern Taiwan made it to the finals at Koshien, Japan’s national high-school baseball championship. Co-penned and produced by hitmaker Wei Te-sheng and directed by tyro helmer Umin Boya, this $10 million production reps a landmark feat in the way it revisits Taiwan’s long-suppressed colonial past with great authenticity and resplendent style, yielding a diffuse but nuanced drama anchored by Masatoshi Nagase’s masterful performance as the inspiring coach. Still, viewers will have to really love baseball to stay focused on the games, which take up the lion’s share of the three-hour running time. Pic has earned a terrific $2.2 million domestically in just four days, but overseas biz will be hit-or-miss.

Scripted by Wei and Ruby Chen, the fact-based film is set in the county of Chia-yi, called Kagi during the Japanese colonial period. Kano is an abbreviated name for the Kagi Agriculture and Forestry Public School, whose baseball team went from a losing record to unprecedented honor at Japan’s grandest youth sports event within a year. Kano’s achievements, according to Wei, laid the foundation for Taiwan’s professional sports development.

The film, however, is not just a nostalgic valentine to Taiwan’s most popular sport; following “Cape No. 7” and “Warriors of the Rainbow: Seediq Bale,” it completes Wei’s colonial trilogy exploring ambivalent Taiwanese attitudes toward Japanese rule from 1895-1945. Set in the same year as the Wushe Incident recounted in “Seeidiq Bale,” “Kano” may at first appear to paint a rosy picture of Japanese benevolence, but in fact the two films are of a piece, both telling David-and-Goliath stories in which an underdog earns a superpower’s respect, not through victory so much as sheer go-for-broke spirit. Seen in this light, “Kano” is full of contempo reflections on Taiwanese identity as they try to find their place on increasingly challenging global, diplomatic and economic playing fields.

It’s 1944, and Imperial Japanese army officer Hiromi Joshiya (Ken Aoki, “Crows Zero II”) has a layover in Taiwan en route to the Southeast Asian battlefield. He makes a point of stopping over in Kagi, and his visit becomes a framing device as the story shifts back to 1931. Originally from Shikoku, Hyotaro Kondo (Nagase) has brought his family to Taiwan to work as a bookkeeping instructor at Kano, where he’s browbeaten into coaching the baseball team by Hamada, an agricultural teacher who loves experimenting with mutant fruit. Although the faculty meant baseball to serve as mere exercise for the boys, Kondo implements a tough regimen to whip them into shape. As in any underdog sports story, the players endure putdowns from an elitist middle school, while the naysaying faculty refuses to fund them.

Starting with a muddy, rain-drenched match in which the team shows its first inklings of promise, the narrative races ahead as Kano builds unstoppable momentum, seizing the island championship that qualifies it for Koshien. Moments from the team’s regional tournament are shot with vigor, but come across as hasty and fragmented; more time is spent on scenes of Kondo imparting his knowledge of gamesmanship and moral philosophy, which could be considerably trimmed down even if they do have a certain rhetorical lyricism.

The Koshien playoffs occupy half the entire film, kicking off with a game against a Hokkaido team in which Joshiya is reintroduced as an ace pitcher; in gauging Kano’s performance via the opponent’s perspective, the story gains shades of psychological complexity. The climactic finals against three-time champion Kyoto Middle School run uninterrupted for more than 30 minutes, packed with hand-wringing tension and stirring performances that will sweep up even those viewers with little or no baseball knowledge.

Though the focus here is mainly on the courageous perseverance of star pitcher Akira Go (Tsao Yu-ning), the supporting players, who reveal their character through their playing styles, also come into their own. Still, despite the film’s length, there’s no family background or other relational context to enrich the players beyond their behavior on the field. And although Kano was touted as the most ethnically integrated team at the time, the screenplay provides insufficient class-based or cultural distinctions among the Japanese, Chinese and Aboriginal players. When they’re not training, the boys seem relatively carefree, hardly desperate or pressured enough to fight as they do.

Dominating the saga are Kondo and the vision he embodies; he may be an authoritarian, but the closing act moves and surprises with the humility he shows his students. Played by Nagase with intelligence, gravitas and affecting vulnerability, he delivers eloquent speeches but is most enthralling when he’s quietly assessing the game, totally absorbed and invested in his team’s every move. His ongoing flashback exchanges with mentor Sato (Togo Igawa, dignified) form a parallel student-teacher relationship that provides a psychological basis for his tough drilling.

A prolific actor of Aboriginal descent (he had a supporting role in “Seediq Bale”), Boya draws on his own baseball experience to direct a young cast culled from several high-school baseball leagues. The helmer handles emotions with a discreet touch, such as Kondo’s tender relationship with his wife (Machiko Ono) and two cute daughters, or the subtly but powerfully expressed love between Go and his friend Shizuka.

The production’s meticulous veracity is reflected not only in every prop, but also in cultural particulars, such as the specific dialect spoken by one character’s Osaka-born family. Production design by Makoto Asano (“Seediq Bale,” “The Flowers of War”) displays rigorous attention to detail, from a Japanese-style town square that feels bustling and lived-in, to the re-creation of a now-90-year-old stadium in Kaohsiung, its grandeur highlighted by Chin Ting-chang’s sweeping widescreen visuals. The cultural color isn’t as strong in the second half, which lacks so much as a single street scene in Nishinomiya, where Koshien is located.

Chin, who lensed Wei’s last two productions, captures the whirlwind movement and gut-busting exertion on the field. Reflecting the input of six baseball consultants, the moves are choreographed with tremendous realism, their awesome speed conveyed by editor Milk Su without any ostentatious gimmickry. The players’ triumphant moments are intercut with Joshiya’s pilgrimage to Kagi, and the film, reflecting on the imminent end to Japanese colonialism and the fate of a young soldier in a losing war, becomes an ode to the fleeting nature of youth and the dreams it brings.

Naoki Sato’s score has the same cloying touch evident in his past compositions but lends weightiness to the final scenes. Tu Duu-chih’s excellent sound mix captures even wind chimes with stunning clarity.

Film Review: 'Kano'

Reviewed at Grand Cinema, Kowloon, March 3, 2014. (In Osaka Asian Film Festival — opener.) Running time: 185 MIN.

Production

(Taiwan) An Vie Show Cinemas (in Taiwan)/Lighten Distribution Co. (in Hong Kong) release of an Ars Film Prod., Yi Lean Co., Ko-Hiong-Lang, Dreamland Image Co., CMC Entertainment, Yi Ping Tang Chinese Medical Clinic, Sony Music Entertainment (Japan), Epic Records Japan,  presentation of an Ars Film production. (International sales: Ablaze Image, Taipei.) Executive producers, Jimmy Huang, Wei Te-sheng.

Crew

Directed by Umin Boya. Screenplay, Ruby Chen, Wei Te-sheng. Camera (color, widescreen, 35mm/HD), Chin Ting-chang; editor, Milk Su; music/music supervisor, Naoki Sato; production designer/set decorator, Makoto Asano; costume designer, Lin Xin-yi; sound (Dolby Atmos), Tu Duu-chih, Wu Shu-yao; supervising sound editor/re-recording mixer, Tu; visual effects supervisor, Chiu Cheng-ning, Charles Lee; visual effects, Tainan Science & Technology U., the White Rabbit Entertainment, Fenix Thailand, Le Vision Pictures, Dreamland Image Co., Mind Biz Multimedia Technology, Central Motion Pictures Corporation Studio (CMPC Studio), Dynamo Pictures; baseball consultants, Tsai Wu-zhang, Sadaharu Oh, Genji Kaku, Lin Hua-wei, Mars Chu; historical consultant, Hsieh Shih-yuan; line producer, Hsu Gou-lun; associate producers, Christa Chen, Go Sugiyama; casting, Lee Hsiu-luan.

With

Masatoshi Nagase, Tsao Yu-ning, Ken Aoki, Takao Osawa, Maki Sakai, Togo Igawa, Chang Hung-yi, Zhong Yan-cheng, Sie Jyun-cheng, Sie Jyun-jie, Chen Chin-hung, Yuma Okura, Kotaro Yamamuro, Noel Iida, Jeng Bing-hong, Tsai Yu-fan, Wei Chi-an, Chen Yung-xin, Chou Jun-hou, Machiko Ono. (Japanese dialogue — Taiwanese dialect, Hakka dialect; Taiwan Aboriginal dialogue)

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  1. VIDEO: Trailer for baseball movie ‘Kano’
    By Dayn Perry | Baseball Writer
    March 8, 2014

    MORE: Spring Training | FA tracker: position players | FA tracker: pitchers

    Confession: I don’t typically like baseball movies. I’m a bit of an admitted film snob, and the sub-genre of baseball flicks typically disappoints. I’m quite a fan of “The Life and Times of Hank Greenberg” and “Sugar,” but I don’t particularly care for usually cited exemplars like “Bull Durham” and “The Natural.”

    With all that said, color me intrigued by the following trailer for the new Taiwanese baseball movie “Kano” …

    It looks like a fairly typical sports movie story arc, but it’s the beautifully shot baseball footage that grabs me by my elitist lapels. On that point, note these passages from the Variety review of “Kano” …

    “The Koshien playoffs occupy half the entire film, kicking off with a game against a Hokkaido team in which Joshiya is reintroduced as an ace pitcher; in gauging Kano’s performance via the opponent’s perspective, the story gains shades of psychological complexity. The climactic finals against three-time champion Kyoto Middle School run uninterrupted for more than 30 minutes, packed with hand-wringing tension and stirring performances that will sweep up even those viewers with little or no baseball knowledge.”
    Novelty of novelties: Here we have a baseball movie that purportedly features lots and lots of cinematically rendered baseball. If the above footage is any indicator, that’s a feature, not a bug.

    File under: movies I shall one day see.

  2. maggie language maven in usa phd married to Taiwanese woman many years says re languages issue,…” there was a time when I looked upon all these Chinese languages (e.g, Min, Hakka, Beijing/Peking, etc.) as dialects of a proto-Chinese, but these days I’m more inclined to agree with you. They are large unintelligible to each other. Try understanding Shanghainese if all you know is, say Mandarin or Taiwanese Hokkien! They have largely the same s-v-o sentence structure, but then so does English, for crying out loud. I’m no linguist, but the experts these days I tend to regard these as related languages, like Spanish and Portuguese. Check out this article from the SCMP about Cantonese and whether it should be considered a language or dialect:

    The development of Cantonese language is a story worth telling | South China Morning Post

    The author writes that “dialects imply mutual intelligibility,” but we just don’t achieve that among the so-called Chinese “dialects.”
    I think the issue is burgeoning Chinese nationalism: to imply Hokkien or Hakka or Cantonese is an actual language is to incur the wrath of those who would incorporate Taiwan into the PRC.

    I’m in your camp. “Dialect” has to be reevaluated when we discuss the languages of China & Taiwan. These are virtual languages.”

  3. a just a note too: the name of the school is actually in Japanese and reads ”KA”-gi ”No”-lin Gakko, kagi being Japanese name for jiaya
    and from ”*KA-gi *No-lin Gakko”, gakko means school. i we get KA-NO like TODAI for Tokyo Uni

    • Chris says:

      Chinese is a written language, “standardized” during the Chin (or Qin, if you live in the PRC) dynasty. Thus, Chin-ese.
      Mandarin, the now official language of both China and Taiwan was brought into use by the Ching (Qing) dynasty much later. The Ching court originated in now northern China, previously Manchu(-ria), (thus, Man-darin) and were considered through most of Chinese history by the Han to be northern Barbarians and invaders.
      What now known as “Taiwanese” or as some call it, Hoklo, was, for a long time, the official language of the Han-Chinese court (since the Han Dynasty). As northerners moved in and officially took over China, Hoklo speaking population moved south and settled along the southern shore, many crossed the straits and moved to Taiwan.
      To look at history in perspective, one could argue that Taiwan preserved Han Chinese culture better than China linguistically with the preservation Hoklo and traditional Chinese writing.
      Kind of the same way that people in the US preserved proper English spellings and pronunciations, more so than the English, who, through periods of francophilia, changed their accents and spelling.

  4. Maggie you are good insightful reviewer but truth be told you are NOT from Taiwan, a separate nation from communist china, and as
    Film Critic at Variety; Programming Consultant for Asian Films at Tokyo International Film …
    Asia Chief Critic at The Hollywood Reporter
    with Education
    University of Oxford..cool and more power to you! But you should be more humble when telling Taiwanese people where the languages they speak come from. No?

  5. maggie the taipei posse says ”Holo and Hakka are languages in the Sinitic family, which is of the Sino-Tibetan family. Just like Spanish and Portuguese are languages in the Romance family, which is of the Indo-European family.

    But if Maggie Lee insists, you can tell her if she doesn’t like the linguistic definition, then she should look up the phrase “A language is a dialect with an army and navy.”

    checkmate

  6. maggie lee, er, Taiwanese is not a dialect, Hakka is not a dialect; they are separate languages. capish?

    • Maggie Lee says:

      Taiwanese, or “Taiyu,” originated from Hokkien, or Min’nan dialect spoken in parts of Fujian province, but has incorporated many Japanese words so it’s unique. Like Hakka, Taiwanese, or Hokkien, are not separate languages. They are all dialects within the Chinese language. CAPISH?!

      • Maggie Lee, you know more than I do about this, so I apologize for getting it wrong, and cede to you here. Thanks for the heads up. But from what I know, and what I know is not much, Hoklo does not come from Hakka. You are gonna get into trouble for saying that, and I assume you are Taiwanese so you are ready to rumble with other Taiwanese who will beg to differ with you on this. Hakka is a separate language: hang hang liao liao. Hoklo is sep too: Busasa! and There is no such thing as a Chinese language. Come on, Maggie, are you being paid by the CCP in Beijing or what? SMILE….but okay, you win, you’re right, i will accept what you say for now since you are a native speaker and all i can speak is Yiddish, which is not a German dialect, by the way, not a German dialect. Ask my grandma.

        Anyways, just wanted to say your review rocks, it is the best review ever so far KANO you really understand the movie and i loved every word you wrote, and yes Nagase, who was just 22 when he starred in Jim Jarmuch’s 1989 cult movie “Mystery Train”, really plays his role to a T. I saw him on set severeal times while they were shooting in Chiayi. He told me to say hi to Jim Jarmsuich, and said “I miss Jim so much!”

        One note: correction: the movie was not set in Chiayi County in the 1929-1931 period of the film. At that time, Chiayi City belonged to TAINAN county, which was the county seat so the movie really takes place in Tainan County. But in Chiayi district of Tainan County. I have photo from the set location to prove it and i can send.

        I am big fan of the movie and i loved your review. and thanks for your good eyes on this movie. One thing: will the movie ever be shown in regular run in Japan?: And will it ever make a run in USA or only at film festivals? Your POV?

  7. THE BEST. BASEBALL MOVIE. EVER.

    In an earlier preview of the just-released
    Taiwanese baseball film titled “KANO,” this reporter explained that
    when a high school baseball
    team from Taiwan was invited to the
    Japan in 1931 to play in an annual high school tournament, the team from
    Taiwan surprised everyone by reaching the finals — and almost
    winning.

    Okay, they came in second, but the story still resonates today in both
    Taiwan and Japan, and a new movie by first-time director Umin Boya
    has lit up the scoreboard. The film, since it’s about America’s
    favorite past-time of baseball, might even garner a nomination in the
    best foreign film category at next year’s Oscars.

    Producer Te-sheng Wei, the director of earlier Taiwanese blockbusters
    ”Cape No. 7” and ”Seediq Bale,”
    also about the influence of Japanese culture on Taiwan over the past
    100 years, had the baseball project in mind for about ten years, he
    told the Wrap
    in an interview last year. So he wrote a
    script, asked actor and rookie director Umin Boya to helm the movie
    and hired a cast of unknown Taiwanese actors and local extras. The
    movie was
    released on February 27 in Taiwan and will be screened in Japan as well.

    After seeing “KANO,” a three-hour emotional rollercoast with lush,
    superb cinematography with subtitles in English, I want to tell
    readers here and around the world: this movie is the. best. baseball.
    movie. ever.

    Not just the best Asian baseball movie ever, but the best
    baseball movie ever in the world! It’s that good.

    The movie tells the story of a high school baseball team comprised of
    three ethnic groups — Japanese, Han Chinese and native Aboriginal boys
    — and one tough Japanese coach, played by the actor Masatoshi Nagase
    in a stellar performance.

    The “Chiayi No-rin Gakko” team took a boat from Keelung to Japan in the
    summer of 1931 and turned a lot of heads in Kobe. Now in 2014, the
    movie is turning heads in Taiwan and Japan and when it hits movie
    theaters in North America and Europe, baseball flicks will never be
    seen in quite the same way again.

    My take? This really is ”the. best. baseball. movie. ever.”

    For one reviewer in Taiwan, a Westerner who goes by the handle of “Hansioux” on
    an online film forum, “KANO” rocks.

    “‘KANO’ is about baseball,
    people who love the game of baseball, and how sports can transform a
    person, a group, a city and even a nation,” he writes. “As a baseball
    movie, it’s a
    great one, and as a rabid
    baseball fan, I’ve seen a lot of baseball movies.”

    In most sports
    movies, there’s a “building the team by finding all the right pieces”
    sequence, Hansioux writes, adding: “It’s not restricted to sports
    movies, think ‘Oceans 11’, when
    George Clooney and Brad Pitt are picking and recruiting the team. It
    is usually done with a snappy tempo, being humorous while showing the
    audience what these people can do, and why they belong on the team.
    KANO tries to have such a sequence, but the tempo is a bit
    choppy and also doesn’t clearly show the audience that the Japanese
    colonial coach went to each of the Taiwanese players one by one and
    asked if they want to join.”

    Another thing most sports movies must have is some douchebag trying
    to dissolve, unfund the team, like the owner of that Charlie Sheen
    ”Wild Thing” movie trying to sell the team, or the parents in the
    original ”Bad News Bears” wanting their kids to quit, Hansioux notes.

    While the movie starts off in colonial Taiwan, the film moves north to
    the national high school baseball championships in Japan in 1931 and
    it’s here where ”KANO” hits paydirt.

    “The Japanese portion of
    the story was what made this movie one of the best baseball movies
    ever,” Hansioux wrote. “The character stories and acting are top
    notch. The atmosphere
    and the scenery of the stadium is breathtaking. More importantly, the
    level of baseball skills displayed on the screen is real. I mean this
    is not Tim Robbins as Nuke Laloosh in ‘Bull Durham” or Thomas Ian
    Nicholas in that ‘Rookie Rocket’ movie. There are no quick edits to hide
    the awkwardness of the actors, and there are no gimmicks. I seriously
    felt like I was watching a baseball game. I got pretty nervous and
    felt the pain of the players, clenching my fists when things got
    tough even though I knew the story pretty well.”

    Before going into his summary, Hansioux adds: “Before you non-baseball
    lovers mock that feeling like a real baseball
    game must mean the tempo was slow and sleep inducing, the tempo was
    just right. It was fast and snappy when the plays were going on, and
    just slow enough when it came to developing the characters. I don’t
    think I ever had as intense of an experience watching other baseball
    movies.”

    His conclusion: “There’s a theme of not giving up, setting a high goal
    for oneself,
    don’t expect to win, just give your darnedest not to lose even if the
    odds are stacked against you. If there’s anything
    else in this movie other than the game of baseball, it’s producer and
    writer Wei and director Umin Boya wanting to remind audiences what the
    ‘Taiwanese
    spirit’ means.”

    So let this repeat: ”KANO” is ”The. best. baseball.
    movie. ever.”

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