#7 in my ranking of Masaki Kobayashi’s films.
This is the Japanese baseball version of Ace in the Hole, but it’s missing one component that could have pushed it into greatness. The characters are well-drawn, the situation appropriately murky, and the tension real, but there’s a moral component to the story that Masaki Kobayashi seems to take for granted. This isn’t a man’s life or death in the balance, this is contract negotiations around a baseball player’s entry into the pros. We can definitely see the impact this has to people involved, the overall wearing down of ones humanity as one approaches everything as a problem that can simply be solved with a few more thousand yen, but it’s not the clear-cut moral case of a man leaving another man to die for his own advantages. This waxiness around the morality of the situation ends up reminding me of The Wolf of Wall Street in a similar way, where the central point ends up a bit obfuscated instead of highlighted.
Goro Kurita (Minoru Oki) is a college baseball player who’s shaking things up in center field and in the batter’s box. He’s a once in a generation fielder and batter who is obviously headed for great things in the Nipon League in Japan. The talent scout for the Toyo Flowers Kishimoto (Keiji Sada) is sent to negotiate with Kurita’s personal coach, Ippei Tamaki (Yûnosuke Itô) and, what the scouts call, a leech. He’s someone that the scouts see as purely an impediment to negotiations and one that they will need to buy along with Kurita. Kurita has a girlfriend Fudeko (Keiko Kishi) who has grown disillusioned with her boyfriend as he’s gotten closer to entering the professional league and a large family in a small, poor village who all want their piece of the pie that’s coming Kurita’s way.
The bulk of the film is the extended negotiations that happen between the first efforts to talk to Kurita and the fall championship series at the collegiate level. What makes all of this incredibly involving (despite my reservations in my introduction) is that the line between genuine emotion and backstabbing manipulation is never, ever clear. Tamaki has an illness that makes him topple over in pain from his gut from time to time, but Fudeko (who is sister to his mistress) insists that its at least partially fake. She hates baseball and what Kurita has become, dreaming of a smaller, more honest life. Kurita himself is actually barely in the film, but when he’s on screen he alternates between seeming completely innocent to, in particular with his interactions with Fudeko, underhanded and hiding something.
In the middle of all of this is Kishimoto. He is the purveyor of the series of bribes (gifts) that he must give out to Tamaki, his mistress, Fudeko, Kurita’s family, and Kurita himself, and yet he’s just trying to sign a promising young talent to his team. Here’s where the morality aspect of it kind of fails a bit. There is talk from Fudeko about how Kishimoto is treating Kurita like a commodity (it’s true). That’s surely dehumanizing, but it will also end with Kurita becoming a millionaire at 20 and being able to simply play baseball for a living. I don’t think the moral issue is there, but with just the general wearing down of the rat race and the fact that Kishimoto has to bribe just about everybody. And why does he have to do that? Because Kurita isn’t straight with anyone.
Kurita ends up looking a bit like a monster by the end of this. He makes a decision early based on reasoning that he repeats, but he keeps the specific decision secret. No one listens to his reasoning and simply throws money at him again and again and again. He’s not treated like a person with desires and wants, but, yes, like a commodity. However, he’s not some passive, meek nobody. He’s sneaky and gets exactly what he wants in the end, and he disappoints a lot of people along the way, but they never listened to him anyway. Everyone, from his family to Tamaki, treated him as just a commodity. The only one who didn’t was Fudeko, and that’s because she had once loved him and had grown to hate him. An interesting little subplot is that it seems like Fudeko and Kishimoto end up with a possible future together as a romantic couple because they both just want what’s best for Kurita in their own way. They’re really the only two genuine people in the movie.
Most of the film is between Kishimoto and Tamaki, though, and Kishimoto’s desire to trust. The problem is that Tamaki really is faking his illness, sometimes. When he sees Kurita off to go home for the last time before he makes his decision and signs with a team, we see Tamaki bend over in pain, try to extract a promise from Kurita to sign with the Toyo Flowers because they will offer Tamaki the best deal for himself, and then stand up without problem as soon as Kurita is out of sight. He’s also actually suffering from it, at the same time, and he goes into painful convulsions the night before the signing that he cannot stop. Did his faking of symptoms at opportune times undermine Kurita’s faith in his coach and lead him to simply dismiss his needs and desires? It’s never said, but I think the implication is there: the fakery of it all destroys trust between everyone.
The only thing holding me back from calling this Kobayashi’s first great film is that moral component which seems to be tied to Kobayashi’s socialist ideology. He finds the buying and selling of players to be immoral, but Kurita happily takes advantage of the situation to get the best from himself while leaving all of his leeches to fend for themselves. Is that immoral? It’s unclear what this sort of moral aspect is supposed to actually be and if Kobayashi’s own characters and film undermine it. So, I end up with a similar reaction to The Wolf of Wall Street, but the film looks and feels a whole lot like Billy Wilder’s Ace in the Hole at the same time.
I also want to note the title. The title comes from a line of dialogue and, taken out of context, it seems so aggressive. However, in the film itself, it’s done almost meekly as Kishimoto agrees to fully take on Tamaki as, essentially, a secondary client. It’s what ties Tamaki to Kishimoto completely. I just found that interesting.
Aside from an unclear moral aspect, this is probably Kobayashi’s best film up to this point. When I first started learning about Kobayashi’s body of work (right after watching Samurai Rebellion) a couple of years ago, it was this one that excited me most to visit. Now that I have, I’m not disappointed at all.