Taiwan-Japan, 2017, colour, 2.35:1, 184 mins.
Directors: Ma Zhixiang 马志翔 [Umin Boya], Wei Desheng 魏德圣.
Lavishly staged but repetitive and thinly developed baseball drama, set in colonial 1930s Taiwan.
Taiwan, Jilong harbour, 1944. As young Japanese army officer Josha Hiromi (Aoki Ken) leaves the island for a new posting in the Philippines, he remembers first arriving in the Japanese colony and, on the train south, wanting to see the small town of Kagi (modern-day Jiayi), from where came the famous baseball team Kano 嘉农, comprised of students from the Kagi Agriculture & Forestry School 嘉义农林学校 (modern-day Jiayi University). In 1931, when Josha Hiromi was captain of the Sapporo team, the multi-ethnic Kano – comprising Japanese, Han and aboriginals – had taken part in that year’s championship held in Koshien, Japan, coming out of nowhere to create a sensation. Two years earlier the team had been an unruly group of baseball enthusiasts trained by one of the school’s teachers, Hamada Tsugiki (Yoshioka Sonrei), and financially supported by the headmaster (Reizei Kimihiro), and had never won a match. Hamada Tsugiki finally persuades Kondo Hyotaro (Nagase Masatoshi), a onetime player in Japan who, after suddenly leaving the sport, now works quietly as an accountant in Taiwan, to train the group with a view to taking it to Koshien. Kondo Hyotaro imposes tough discipline and whips the group into shape; he also lets a baseball-mad local Han boy, Wu Bo, aka Go Ha (Wei Qi’an), to join the group. Between training and studying, one of the Han players, Wu Mingjie, nicknamed Akira (Cao Youning), hardly has time to regret losing his Han girlfriend, bookseller’s daughter Jing, nicknamed Shizuka (Ye Xingchen), who is to be married off to a doctor. After a brawl with rival high-school team Kachu 嘉中, aka Kagi Middles, Kano faces off with it in a match; but the game is rained off while Kachu is winning. Following a destructive typhoon, the school’s headmaster tells Kondo Hyotaro he can’t afford to increase Kano’s funding. Wu Mingjie watches from the sidelines as Jing is married off. And one of the team, Taiwan-born Japanese Kozato Hatsuo (Okura Yuma), is devastated when his father, who’s been injured working on a huge engineering project to bring an irrigation canal to the region, says the family has to go back to Osaka. Despite setbacks, however, Kano wins the Pan-Island High-School Championships held in Taibei in 1931, breaking the long monopoly by teams from the north of the island. This wins it a place in the Koshien summer tournament, to which it journies after being feted back home for its Taibei victory.
You don’t have to be familiar with baseball to understand the basics of Kano, but an enthusiasm for the sport, as well as a knowledge of its finer points, is essential to getting the most out of the period sports drama, especially during the long-drawn-out finale that occupies most of the final hour of three. A lavishly staged, inspirational heartwarmer – based on the true story of a raggedy team from a provincial Taiwan agricultural school that caused a sensation at a tournament in Japan in 1931 – it’s also suffused with nationalistic and politically correct subtexts above and beyond its period setting, when the island was still a Japanese colony and yet to be transformed into a Mandarin-speaking, KMT refuge. Despite its excessive length, the film has a very simple theme-and-variations structure, based on the old cinematic chestnut of a group of losers being motivated to become winners. The film went on to become one of Taiwan’s biggest local successes, though its hawl of NT$340 million barely covered its reported budget of some NT$300 million.
Just as a knowledge of/enthusiasm for baseball is assumed by the film-makers, a lot of other background is also never fully explained, including the whole background and meaning of the film’s title – shown only in English, though its Chinese equivalent would be 嘉农, an abbreviation of the agricultural school in Kagi (modern-day Jiayi) from which the baseball team is drawn. (See Story, above, for more details.) Suffice it to say that, after a needlessly complicated opening, the main story is set during 1929-31, some 35 years into the island’s spell as a Japanese colony, when governance was stable, assimilation between Japanese, Han and Aboriginals was pretty much complete, and the previously backwater island was being used as an economic showcase by Tokyo. In some ways, Kano is the flip side of the epic, two-part Warriors of the Rainbow 赛德克•巴莱 (2011), set at exactly the same time and centred on an armed rebellion by mountain Aboriginals nearby.
None of that nastiness gets a mention in Kano, where relations between colonisers and colonised are all sweetness and light. However, it’s no coincidence that the film is co-written, co-directed and co-produced by Warriors‘ writer-director-producer Wei Desheng 魏德圣 (Cape No. 7 海角七号, 2008). Or that Wei’s co-director is half-aboriginal actor-director Ma Zhixiang 马志翔 [Umin Boya], who had a leading role in Warriors. The film was reportedly Ma’s original idea, though the input of Wei and his regular team (including d.p. Qin Dingchang 秦鼎昌 and editor Su Peiyi 苏珮仪) is clearly considerable. But whereas Warriors was an often brutal, raw drama of colonial suppression, Kano is all PC hugging, with a message for the present day: the team’s multi-ethnic make-up is seen as a source of pride (with one racist Japanese journalist put in his place, in a clumsily shoehorned scene), differences between Japanese, Han and Aboriginals are elided throughout the movie to a point where a non-Chinese/Japanese viewer can’t tell the difference, and there’s a strong sense of a multi-ethnic Taiwan “identity” that’s very much in line with the island’s currently re-worked official image. Realistically, the dialogue is mostly in Japanese, with some Hokkien and a little Hakka and Aboriginal; the only Mandarin heard is, startlingly, in a song during the end credits.
All of those good intentions may be well and good, but as a three-hour movie for the general viewer Kano is a very mixed bag. On the plus side, it’s superbly packaged, with a big, expansive feel from the start that’s underlined by the equally big and expansive score by Japanese composer Sato Naoki 佐藤直纪 (Rurouni Kenshin るろうに剣心, 2012) which, presumably taking its cue from the sport’s US origins, is all modal-Americana, with plenty of majestic horns. The money is also all up on the screen, with a profusion of camera set-ups from which editor Su creates a mobile portrait, and a convincing 1930s design by Asano Makoto 浅野诚 that only looks filmy-fake in its main set of the town’s centre.
On the minus side, the movie already starts to become repetitive after the opening hour, as it goes from one “motivating” sequence to another backed by Sato’s inspiring music, and attempts to give the characters some background (such as a laughably token love affair between a young player and a bookseller’s daughter) largely misfire. The film’s second half, dominated by the long hawl of the final tournament, also tries to break up the baseball action with character bits (the girl giving birth, locals listening to the radio broadcast back home, a Japanese officer’s later visit to Kagi, even more pep talks) but look equally token.
Other than its central theme of a group of rowdies being given a cause in life, the script by Chen Jiawei 陈嘉蔚 and Wei doesn’t actually have much to say. Despite its polished production values, is Kano still a long hawl at three hours? Yes, especially if you’re not interested in baseball per se. Could the same have been achieved in two hours or less? Yes, especially by cutting back much of the baseball detail.
Apart from Taiwan newcomer Cao Youning 曹佑宁, who has a bright screen presence as Kano’s lead pitcher, few of the rest of the team come into focus as individuals. It’s held together by the performance of Japanese veteran Nagase Masatoshi 永濑正敏 (Cold Fever Á köldum klaka, 1995; The Hidden Blade 隠し剣 鬼の爪, 2004), who gets more mileage out of an immovable expression than thought possible. Somehow, this most self-effacing but reliable of actors also manages to make the character of the stren trainer sympathetic, hinting at how he’s basically used the Kano kids to bring him back in glory to the homeland he was forced to flee earlier with his family. Other roles are bits, from Igawa Togo 伊川东吾 as the trainer’s old mentor to Aoki Ken 青木健 in the awkward role of a Kano admirer that’s meant to give structure to the film but could easily be eliminated. Female roles in the very male movie are few and token, from Japan’s Sakai Maki 坂井真纪 as the trainer’s wife to newbie Taiwan actress Ye Xingchen 叶星辰 as the pitcher’s lost love, both okay.
For the record, the initial end credits attribute direction solely to Ma but later, in the final roller, Wei’s name is listed after Ma’s.
Presented by ARS Film Production (TW), Yi Lean (TW), Ko-Hiong-Lang (TW), Dreamland Image (TW), CMC Entertainment (TW), Yi Ping Tang Chinese Medical Clinic (TW), Sony Music Entertainment (Japan) (JP), Epic Records Japan (JP). Produced by ARS Film Production (TW).
Script: Chen Jiawei, Wei Desheng. Photography: Qin Dingchang. Editing: Su Peiyi. Music: Sato Naoki. Production design: Asano Makoto. Costume design: Deng Liqi, Lin Xinyi, Du Meiling. Sound: Du Duzhi, Wu Shuyao, Okabe Kiyoshi. Action: Yang Zhilong. Visual effects: Qiu Zhengning, Li Zhaohua.
Cast: Nagase Masatoshi (Kondo Hyotaro, trainer), Osawa Takao (Hatta Yoichi, canal engineer), Sakai Maki (Kondo Hyotaro’s wife), Igawa Togo (Sato), Cao Youning (Go Meisho/Akira/Wu Mingjie), Zhang Hongyi (Hirano Yasuo/Luo Baonong), Chen Jinhong (So Seisei/Su Zhengsheng), Zhong Yancheng (Agematsu Koichi/Chen Gengyuan), Xie Junsheng (Azuma Kazuhito/Lan Dehe), Xie Junjie (Mayama Uichi/Tuo Hongshan), Okura Yuma (Kozato Hatsuo), Iida Noel (Kawahara Nobuo), Yamamuro Kotaro (Fukushima Matao), Zheng Binghong (Oe Mitsuo), Cai Youfan (Saito Kimiyoshi), Chen Yongxin (Ryu/Liu Canglin), Wei Qi’an (Go Shosei/Go Ha/Wu Bo), Zhou Junhao (Sakiyama Toshio), Aoki Ken (Josha Hiromi), Ye Xingchen (Shizuka/Jing), Sun Rui (Cai Zhaozhao), Yoshioka Sonrei (Hamada Tsugiki, original trainer), Koichi Mantaro (Koike, journalist), Saito Kazumi (All-Island High School Championship commentator), Ishizuka Yoshitaka (Koshien live-broadcast commentator), Mizukami Yoshio (Koshien Championship live-broadcast commentator), Shibuya Tenma (Kagi people’s representative), Nishida Erina (Kozato Hatsuo’s mother), Wang Manjiao (So Seisei’s grandmother), You Anshun (anti-irrigation peasant), Zhang Fugui (Kagi peasant), Xu Yaqi (Kondo Hideko, Kondo Hyotaro’s elder daughter), Yu Huiqiao (Kondo Kazuko, Kondo Hyotaro’s younger daughter), Huang Tenghao (Shizuka’s doctor husband), Chen Zhusheng (Kagi peasant), Wu Shengbang (Kagi governor), Kageyama Tadashi (Miwa, young doctor in 1944 Jilong), Araki Takahiro (soldier in 1944 Jilong), Reizei Kimihiro (Shimauchi, Kagi Agriculture & Forestry School headmaster), Lin Zhiru.
Release: Taiwan, 27 Feb 2014; Japan, 24 Jan 2015.