1950s, 3.5/4, Masaki Kobayashi, Review, Sports

I Will Buy You

#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.

Rating: 3.5/4

3 thoughts on “I Will Buy You”

  1. I’d love to re-title this movie, but ‘The Grifters’ is already taken.

    I agree with most of your comments (with one dissent and a quibble) and you’ve brought in another good review. So thanks for that first and foremost.

    Once again we have a mass of characters that feel real. Not movie real, but the really real world real. Whores, leeches, managers, coaches, family members, lovers….all drawn in various shades of gray. Jim Thompson could have written this one. Everyone is lying, even our protagonist Kishimoto (in fact, I almost considered him a villainous protagonist but he’s in the end the most human of the bunch). Everyone has a price and everyone has their hand out (apart from maybe one or two of the brothers who actually say they want whatever Goto wants).

    If there’s a theme, its one of selfishness and lies…and I’m not even sure that IS the theme. It is a drama and a damn good drama, particularly again because of how the characters are written. At the end Goto Kurita leaves his mentor to die so he can attend to the press and publicity. But when you see him ‘catch’ Tamyaki exaggerating his pain to extort a promise to sign with the Flowers…it’s hard to completely blame him. Kurita has cut his ties to the people trying to sell him. He will sell himself, not necessarily to the highest bidder but to the manager he respects the most. (Osaka also historically had a powerful pro team, sort of the Dodgers to the Tokoyo Yankees) And Kurita has been clear that he would make his OWN decision, we don’t see him wheeling and dealing and he’s the only one we don’t catch lying. He might be a son of a bitch, but he’s his OWN son of a bitch and it made me really respect him despite his dick move. Selfish but not a liar…

    I didn’t find it preachy, either. Nor praising socialism. One of the character was a spy during WW2, apparently for the Nationalist Chinese, which actually made me like him a bit more. It’s almost like Kobayashi isn’t feeling like hitting us over the head with a screed, instead he’s just saying “This is what professional sports recruitment is like” and showing us the warts and all. In a way, this is maybe a better movie than Kurosawa’s ‘Scandal’, which was far more heavy-handed about how evil the press is.

    But one character I really grew to hate was the girlfriend Fudeko. But hats off to the writing, in a poor melodrama she’d be a pale cardboard cutout of a sweet, innocent girl. Instead, she seems filled with hate and contempt towards everyone, including herself. She constantly is undercutting and treating her supposed lover Kurita with contempt, for himself and for the sport he seems to genuinely love. (You don’t start playing baseball at 3 and keep at it you’re whole life unless you love it) She has a habit of running out into traffic without looking, sadly this does not pay off in the way I was hoping. (though I did like Kishimoto saving her from being hit that last time, a nice indicator of the change in relationship and feeling)

    None of the dialog is predictable or average. None of the characters are sterotypes. This is good stuff. Happy and enjoyable stuff? Well, probably not. This is a great film but not a favorite film. It doesn’t end conventionally or with a conventional twist. Even the talent scouts who lost mostly have an attitude of ‘well, we will beat him by hiring a damn good pitcher’. Because in the end, like baseball, this was all just a game.

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    1. I think I underestimated your appreciation for Kobayashi. He was a serious filmmaker with serious ideas, serious convictions, and serious dramatic chops. I understood that, but damn. This is cool.

      I don’t see much disagreement, though we both have great affection for the film overall. I suppose it’s just that I feel this underlying critique of capitalism at its most wasteful, treated like a crime against humanity because of its deleterious effects on the human soul that doesn’t quite connect for me. Outside of that, it is a great drama with wonderful characters, and I find Fudeko an interesting contrast to the rest. She’s greedy in her own way. She wanted to keep Kurita as he was when she first met him. He most likely still loved baseball, but something had happened in the ensuing three years, and that something was him getting wind of the yen involved in professional sports. That seems to have changed him from a talented young man into something she hated. Everyone else wanted him to make the money, and she just wanted him to be hers. She’d been twisted into something horrible because of this disconnect in her mind, but it started from a place of affection and, perhaps, love.

      I think she’s a very well rounded character in that way.

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