- Original title
- Jigoku Koshien
- Japanese title
- Running time
- 87 minutes
- 4 August 2003
by Jasper Sharp
The competitive sports genre is an enduringly popular one. The trials and tribulations of both the team and the members of which it is comprised form a natural readymade dramatic backdrop for the action, in which the core values of team spirit, reliance on others, the pride of being part of a collective and the competitive spirit that accompanies the desire to win are extolled. The main appeal is dynamic and of course, like the sport itself, primarily visual. In recent years Japan has given us synchronised swimming in Shinobu Yaguchi's Water Boys (2001) and Ping Pong in Fumihiko Sori's film of the same name.
Baseball is the school sport of choice in Japan, and on a national level, it's as big as it is in the US. Ken Takakura's stoic coach fought a battle of wills with over-the-hill American ball player Tom Selleck in Fred Schepisi's Mr Baseball (1992), and Takeshi Kitano's Boiling Point (1990) saw two hapless amateur players pitting their wits against the local yakuza. Then there was the celebrated showdown at the baseball stadium in the finale of Akira Kurosawa's film noir-ish post-war thriller Stray Dog (1949), which was later re-staged in Shinji Aoyama's new take on the material in An Obsession (1997).
For certain, Battlefield Baseball is like none of these films. Instead, director Yudai Yamaguchi, in his debut film, gives us a world first - a baseball zombie horror comedy, complete with chainsaws, corpses sailing through the air and high-kicking kung-fu antics. Based on a popular manga story by Gataro Man that ran in the top-selling Monthly Shonen Jump magazine, Battlefield Baseball almost dispenses with the bat and ball altogether, and instead deals up a whole lot more fun in its place, mocking the clichés of the genre in a manner as spirited as it is funny.
The field of dreams to which all school teams aspire in this case is the Koshien, home of the national high school baseball tournament. Driven by a fanatical coach, the members of the school team at Seido High are literally dying to get there. Unfortunately, their rivals at Gedo High have already died doing so, and the ranks of the team are now swelled with zombies armed to the teeth with an assortment of hard-edged implements.
Seido's crude bullying slugger Gorilla is one of the many wiped out in the early rounds when the two teams first come head to head, but fortunately help is at hand when simpering Megane ("Four Eyes", played by the frog-faced Ito of Boys Choir and Kakuto) falls victim to a gang of violent punks when he goes to retrieve a missing ball. Leaping to Megane's defence comes mean and moody local hardboy, Jubeh The Baseball (Sakaguchi), who immediately catches the coach's eye when he fends off an attack by baseball bat from one of Megane's assailants with consummate ease. Jubeh's skills may be the only way to save the day for Seido against the Gedo team's specialised brand of "fighting baseball", but having accidentally slain his father during pitching practice years before, he seems adamant to live his life as a loner rather than bring his skills to the team.
From the very outset, Battlefield Baseball comes at you so fast and furious that it's almost no surprise to find out that its director was a former AD for Ryuhei Kitamura. In fact, it was Yamaguchi who was also responsible for the screenplays for Kitamura's first two features, Versus and Alive. A further giveaway is the presence of Tak Sakaguchi, the star of every one of Kitamura's films up until this point, as Jubeh, and Kitamura listed as one of the producers.
Now I have to confess that personally Versus wasn't entirely to my taste. Whilst you couldn't have asked for much more from the film in terms of action and bloodshed, it was ultimately too reductive to really appeal beyond a limited cult market.
If Yamaguchi's debut sticks with the fast-cutting, airborne kinaesthetic approach of Versus, then it's great to see that he has also managed to bring the comic book humour of the source material to the screen in a manner sorely lacking from that original film's poker-faced posing. Battlefield Baseball is a delirious send-up of sports movie clichés and soap opera histrionics (Jubeh breaks into song when explaining the demise of his father). It's a bit raw-edged at times, but the breakneck pacing and irreverent humour mean that Battlefield Baseball is destined to become a cult favourite.