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.