A salaryman and father moonlights as a superstar relief pitcher in the engaging Japanese-lingo baseball comedy “Mr. Rookie.” Though niche nature of milieu may limit across-the-board appeal, distribs could get solid innings based on fan interest and crossover based on hunky appeal of lead Kazushige Nagashima and family-related comedy elements. Workhorse ancillary seems likely.
Known only by the eponymous sobriquet on the back of his uniform, the masked closer for the Hanshin Tigers has racked up 15 saves without a loss, and is so confident on the mound he trades rude gestures with batters and even shows his arch-enemy the forkball he’s about to strike him out with. That he refuses to appear in away games and passes up the annual All-Star contest only fuels Mr. Rookie’s legend.
Turns out the athlete is Koji Ohara (Nagashima), a 32-year-old employee of a large construction firm, who abandoned baseball for more than a decade after blowing out his shoulder during the national finals of his high school league. Re-injuring the joint while trying to impress his young son Shunsuke (Yoneda Ryo), Ohara is ministered to by masseur Yang (Jun Kunimura), whose restorative regimen is so successful that Tigers manager Segawa (Isao Hashizume) insists on adding Ohara’s newly-regained and blinding fastball to the rotation.
Inevitably, Ohara’s absurdly long hours at work and on the mound create friction with wife Yuko (Mayu Tsuruta), and their intricate bickering on the subject provides many of pic’s best laughs. So too the corporate maneuverings surrounding the media exploitation of the athlete (via potential taste sensation “Mr. Rookie Beer”) inject welcome slapstick, though plot thread of an investigative reporter out to unmask the ballplayer is underdeveloped.
Himself the son of a baseball legend, Nagashima spent eight years in the Japanese bigs and is thus utterly convincing as the cocksure athlete and deferential worker who in the end is only trying to do right by his family. All other players contribute, with Naoto Takenaka particularly funny as Ohara’s manic section chief at the construction firm.
Tech package is impressive, with some 30,000 extras employed for lengthy and satisfying game sequences at Koshien Stadium, where storied Tigers actually play. Late-inning heroics are provided by journeyman American slugger Randy Bass, who subsequently played five years for the Tigers and led them to the Japan series title in 1985.