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F I L M M A K E R ' S   W E B L O G

"Coming to a television near you - March 20, 2006" (Alex Shear)

            It's been a long, difficult journey these last three years, and we are proud to announce that "Koko-yakyu: High School Baseball" will be airing nationwide July 4th, 2006 on P.O.V., PBS's award-winning non-fiction showcase (check your local listings for the exact time).   We are elated because P.O.V. is the perfect venue, and even though there were other broadcasters interested, P.O.V. was the one outlet that really understood our film and what we wanted to do with it.   So far, they've been the best partners an indie producer could have.

            We hope you will all tune in on Independence Day, I promise it won't be like anything you've seen before.   And keep checking this site for updates on the upcoming DVD release and everything else.

"Greetings from IFP Market in NYC - September, 2005"

            Special thanks to IFP, a great organization for independent filmmakers, for accepting us into IFP Market, their annual event in Manhattan.   IFP Market is an event that brings indie filmmakers together with distributors and gives them a chance to sell their film.   We were one of thousands of submissions and felt honored to be one of the few that got accepted.   We met reps from every major television outlet, as well as all kinds of other filmmakers, distributors, and vendors.   The best part is, that potential buyers request meetings with filmmakers, so that all we have to do is show up - and we have twenty meetings already waiting for us.   It was a great experience and I recommend IFP Market to all indie filmmakers out there.   And, your project can be in any stage of development from pre-production to fine cut.   If you can get in, it is absolutely a great event.

"First day of shooting at Chiben Wakayama - June 19, 2004"

            Call time 6am, and 90 minutes later, after getting a bit lost in the narrow streets of Wakayama, we found our way to the winding entrance road that is the only way into the hilltop fortress that is Chiben Wakayama High School.   The typhoon everyone warned us about was nowhere to be seen - it was 8:30, the sun was blazing, the sky was blue and it was already ridiculously hot.    Luckily there is a slight breeze blowing up the mountain.

            We saw nobody around and the dirt baseball "field" is recessed and out of sight.   As we headed down the road to the field, we were greeted by a stream of Chiben players heading up the road.   As usual they removed their hats and greeted us with "Ooos" (Ohio gozie mas).

            Arriving at the field we found Takashima-kantoku, the most successful high school baseball coach of the last 50 years, hosing down the dusty field with water.   Eventually he stopped and talked with us.

            He gave us the go ahead to shoot all we want.   He told us that his players would do 1,000 wind sprints, 1,000 sit ups and 1,000 push ups before their practice game against Hotoku High School (with more practice planned for after the game).   He said that right now is the toughest time for the players as the weather is at its hottest and the practice at its toughest.   He said it is important to make the practice very difficult to build up their heart, preparing them for games and giving them the confidence that comes with surpassing their own limitations.   During the game, when they face adversity, they will know that they can come back and win because of what they have been through.   He said that after this there would be an easier time during the run-up to the tournament when the players would have less practice.

            We started shooting the kids running incessantly.   Then we shot them doing crunches incessantly.   It looked painful.   Of course, when nobody was looking, sometimes they would take a break.   As an American, thoughts were running through my head like "aren't they going to call off the game because it's too hot?" and "they do all this, BEFORE the game?".

            Shooting the practice game, we knew we should be delicate so we brought two Japanese liaisons with us.   Knowing that no one had ever shot Chiben practices, I told everyone to go easy and not push any boundaries.   So Jake and Ken started running around doing their thing.   They were getting up in everyone's face, in front of both dugouts, along the edges of the field and everywhere (exactly what filmmakers should do, when they want great footage).   After the game, we found out that both teams were annoyed and bothered by our presence.   Our two Japanese liaisons had a lovely time watching the game, but never thought of letting us know what the boundaries actually were.   And apparently, nobody on either team wanted to confront us directly.

            In hindsight, I think the misunderstanding came from the term "practice game".   In our mind, it was "practice".   In their mind, it was not "practice", or even a "game", but more like a life and death battle for supremacy.   Both teams were strong and had aspirations of going to Koshien.   This was their chance to test each other and show their strength.   Most of our American ideas about "baseball", "practice", "players" and even "games" were misleading us.   In Japanese high school baseball, the only difference between practice and games is that the games are quicker and a lot easier.

            I also learned that in Japanese, the word for a baseball "game" is the same as the word for "fight".   And the word for a baseball "player" is the same one used for "soldier".

Tennoji High School - 6/18/04

            They are so excited about us coming to shoot that the O.B.s (alumni) pitched in to get new black and gold uniforms (Hanshin Tiger colors).   Apparently they are replicas of an old uniform they once had.   Also the O.B.'s have set up an "old-timers game" where a bunch of guys, some apparently 60 and over are going to play baseball.

            We met Masa-sensei for dinner at his favorite place, right near the School.   I've been in this situation before and I knew I was in for some really good food and drink.   Perfect raw fatty tuna, the kind you can never get in America.   Tofu with beef, sauce and scallions, then fried fish and a string of incredible dishes.   Perfect draft Asahi and later hot Shochu blended with "beefsteak leaf", hot water and plum.

            Masa-sensei told us about "shingi-itai".   I think it's from Miyamoto's "Book of 5 Rings" and means "Heart and Technique in one body".   He said that his students at Tennoji seem to have gentle and broad hearts, so he is working on developing their strong hearts.   To know that no matter what, if they set themselves to a task, to work hard and not to let adversity ever stop them.

            He said that their goal as a public schools is different from the goal of a hardcore baseball school like Chiben Wakayama.   Their goal as public school teachers is to develop the hearts of their players for success in other endeavors, not baseball.

            Masa-sensei in his last assignment worked at a poor school in the worst section of Osaka.   There he made a name for himself by creating a great baseball program among a bunch of indifferent kids.   He caught the attention of the Principal who was an alumni of one of Osaka's top schools, Tennoji Koko.   For his next assignment, Masa-sensei found himself assigned to Tennoji, as the first kantoku in their history that was also a teacher and not an alumni volunteer ("O.B" - old boy).

            Masa-sensei said that he has his players practice a bit of kendo because it is very similar to baseball swing a la Sadaharu Oh.   He said that it's just like an axe swing.   I told him that Ted Williams wrote, in his book "The Science of Hitting", that the baseball swing is just like the swing of an axe, with wrists unbroken for maximum force at the point of impact and not rolling the wrists until after contact.

            They said that once they had a girl who was a great student (as most at Tennoji are) and never missed a class, until one day when she skipped to go cheer on the baseball squad.   They said that kids really want to be supportive of the baseball team more than the other teams.

            As always happens when enjoying company at places like this, the proprietors, and others gathered around and the conversation was endless.

"Second pre-production visit to Japan - Feb. 2004

Written by Alex Shear

            We landed in Osaka after an incredibly long and cramped economy-class journey (including a layover at Tokyo's Narita airport).   By the time we made our landing approach over the city of Osaka, I was exhausted and loopy.   I had been awake for 24 hours and it really wasn't supposed to be nighttime.   I remember drifting in and out of sleep while looking down on "Blade Runner"-esque visions of Osaka's city lights, stretching as far as I could see.

We settled in and promptly passed out for 12 hours.   Our first meeting was with the Secretary General of the High School Baseball Federation, Mr. Kazuhiro Tanabe.   We always enjoy our time with Tanabe-san.   He then introduced us to Kazuo Sayama, the pre-eminent Japanese baseball historian.   Sayama-san has written over 30 books on baseball in Japanese, and has had extensive contact with America and American baseball experts.   Sayama-san told us everything he could about the history of baseball in Japan.

In Japan, baseball was first introduced by an American English teacher - a Civil War veteran named Horace Wilson.   Mr. Wilson began teaching in Japan in 1868, at Japan's foremost school of higher education (The First Higher School of Tokyo, " Ichiko ", or "the first school", which later became prestigious Tokyo University).   After four years, he concluded that his students were too busy studying, and were clearly not getting enough physical exercise outdoors.   In an effort to get his students some exercise in the fresh air (and baseball being the only team sport he knew), one day in 1872 he did something he had done many times during the Civil War.   He brought his students outside and had them field a few grounders.   That simple act planted a seed, which grew into something Mr. Wilson certainly never could have imagined.   He probably never dreamed that 130 years later, his descendants would get the royal VIP treatment in front of 70,000 fans and tens of millions of TV viewers as they threw out the first pitch at a Koshien game.   Mr. Wilson could not have known that 131 years later, he would be inducted with honor into the Japanese Baseball Hall of Fame.   Mr. Wilson probably never dreamed that he would become known as the Father of Japanese Baseball.

Soon baseball became a sensation at Ichiko, and within a few years, Ichiko's 5 dormitories each fielded their own All-star team for intramural competitions.   This was truly the genesis of Japanese baseball, which forever after would be known primarily as a scholastic sport, a martial art for the training of body, mind, and spirit.   In contrast to the American game, which had developed "from the ground up", played for enjoyment by boys in cities like New York and Philadelphia, in Japan baseball had quite literally sprung forth as a new martial art, from the most prestigious school in the nation.

Baseball historian Kazuo Sayama feels that the biggest difference between the Japanese and American approaches to the game can be traced back to this difference of origin.   In America, baseball developed as an enjoyable recreation, a great way to enjoy a summer day.   In Japan, baseball developed as a serious, scholastic martial art, practiced intensely for the improvement of one's entire being.   It wasn't until the American Major League All-Star teams visited in the 1930's that many Japanese saw first-hand the American approach to the game.   Babe Ruth certainly made an impression, smiling and obviously enjoying himself immensely while demoralizing Japan's All-Stars with towering home runs.   Some accounts had the Babe playing the field at Koshien Stadium with an umbrella in one hand and his glove on the other.

In many ways, baseball was perfectly suited to the Japanese.   Before the Meiji Era, the very idea of recreational sport was nonexistent in Japan.   The physical arts that were practiced were military in nature: swordsmanship, archery, horse riding, etc.   Some say that these Japanese arts lacked a team element, and this new game fit well in a culture where group harmony is paramount.   Maybe it helped that baseball has, at its heart, a powerful one-on-one confrontation between pitcher and batter, not unlike Kendo , Judo , Sumo and other martial arts.   Perhaps it helped that the baseball bat could be handled much like the wooden swords used in Kendo.   Many say that the complexity and strategy of baseball, and the time to consider strategy before and after each move, is what makes baseball so appealing to the Japanese.   What is clear is that baseball has reached a place of prominence in Japan that nobody could have foreseen.

It is safe to say that baseball gave the Japan another arena in which to attempt to prove itself to the Western world.   When Mr. Wilson first hit fungos to his students, 300 years of strict isolation from the outside world had only just given way to a massive and concerted effort to understand, assimilate, and surpass Western nations in industry.   The Japanese attitude seemed to be to adopt Western technology, while at the same time to avoid being corrupted by Western culture.

25 years after Horace Wilson first hit grounders to his students, in 1897, Ichiko's 5-dorm baseball All-stars defeated an American team from the nearby Yokohama Cricket & Athletic club.   The following year, the Ichiko All-stars again defeated the Americans.   News of the victory spread throughout Japan.   In the third matchup, the Americans recruited sailors from a battleship in Yokohama harbor, some of which may have had professional baseball experience.   Despite the "ringers", the Ichiko All-stars won again!   This was a seminal moment for the pride and popularity of Japanese baseball, and the success was attributed to Ichiko's intense training methods.            

Sayama-san expressed his feelings about the American Major Leagues, that they are characterized by a history of cheating, gambling, and drugs.   I can't argue.   He specifically mentioned Pete Rose, Sammy Sosa's corked bat, and the air-ventilation tricks at the Metrodome.   Sayama-san met Ivan Rodriguez and Barry Bonds multiple times in person and is convinced that they have used steroids.   Sayama-san recently published a book about Hideki Matsui's entry into the Major Leagues.   He feels that Major League Baseball is attempting to change its image by bringing in the squeaky-clean Matsui, who was raised by kokoyakyu to always play fair.

            Overall Sayama-san is of the mind that Japanese baseball, especially the high school game, has been taken far too seriously for far too long.   He is a supporter of the recent changes that are aimed at bringing kokoyakyu into the 21 st century, and he says this is only the beginning.

            Later, Sayama-san gave a lecture on baseball history to a room full of sporting goods representatives.   Takayo and I felt like the guests of honor as we were introduced to the crowd.   The only American in the room, I felt like an expert as Sayama-san would occasionally stop and ask me to correct his English pronunciation.   It was a surreal experience sitting through a lecture entirely in Japanese on American baseball history.   Sayama-san traced baseball back so far, he uncovered some kind of European sport involving the repeated kicking of a sheep's bladder.   He also showed recent slides of town-ball (baseball's ancestor) being played at Plimoth Plantation and Cooperstown, New York.   Sayama-san was also the first to introduce me to "stool-ball", a baseball-like game played by Victorian-era women.

At one point, Sayama-san displayed a slide of his visit to the Huntington Avenue Grounds memorial at what is now Northeastern University.   I know it well - it's just a few blocks from my high school.   Huntington Avenue Grounds was the site of the first World Series in 1903, between the Boston Pilgrims (later named the Red Sox) and the Pittsburgh Pirates.   There is a statue of Cy Young at the precise spot where the pitcher's mound was, as well as a bronze home plate where you can step in the box against the glaring visage of the greatest pitcher of them all.

            During a break in the lecture, Sayama-san came over to my seat and told me the most powerful anecdote of the trip.   He said that he had forgotten to tell me something very important: the reason he loved baseball so much.   He told me that when he was nine years old, before the war ended, that everyone was living "underground".   Then American GI's came and taught the kids baseball.   The GI's brought balls and bats, and umpired the games or played catcher.   The GI's were nice to Sayama-san, and one told him he could be a good pitcher.   Sayama-san believed him.   To this day, Sayama-san sees baseball as a symbol of peace and democracy - and a symbol of friendship between the US and Japan.

            His story was so powerful and so unexpected that it hit me like a bolt of lightning.   I only wish I had been able to film that moment.   I don't think Sayama-san is alone in his feelings.   Maybe this spirit of friendship helps explain the enthusiasm that we have encountered in Japan for our project."

O S A K A    J O U R N A L

Little Things - March 24th, 2003

It's the little things that make Japan great:

  • Umbrella stands in the train stations, where people leave their umbrellas to pick up later. Try doing this in NYC!
  • Talking crosswalk signals politely informing the blind when it is time to cross.
  • Giving and receiving even the most insignificant item carefully with two hands.
  • The fine art of exchanging business cards.
  • An enthusiastic greeting when you enter the 7-11! Convenience stores where you can actually get great food: cheap bento boxes, sushi, and rice balls 24/7.
  • Restaurants with incredible service AND no tipping! Unbelievable.
  • And possibly man's greatest invention: beer vending machines. On the street, and open 24 hours of course.
  • Karaoke rooms: can't visit Japan without them.
  • Train stations so clean, you could eat off the floor.
  • Try buying a cell phone WITHOUT a built-in camera.

- Alex

Greetings from Osaka - March 24th, 2003

Greetings from Osaka Japan! We have been here 5 days and are having an incredible time. The reception we have gotten has been unbelievable. People here are so helpful and polite, it is a strange adjustment coming from NYC.

The 75th annual Spring High School Baseball Tournament at Koshien Stadium is in full swing, and we have been amazed by the entire spectacle. Although the invitational Spring tournament is a smaller and less popular version of the Summer tournament, they are in most ways identical.

Since 1915, the best High School teams have competed every year in the Summer Koshien tournament. It is a national institution predating professional baseball. All day long for 11 days, games are broadcast on National TV, as High School players realize their dreams of taking part in the oldest and most sacred baseball tradition in Japan.

Koshien Stadium is Mecca for baseball fans all over the world. Built in 1924, it was constructed not for professional baseball but expressly for the High School tournament, which had steadily outgrown every arena in the country. Visiting American players, including the Babe Ruth-led All-Star team in 1934, played often at Japan's proudest ballpark.

Being at these games is an experience in pure baseball. In a well-established ritual, games come off like clockwork, starting with the teams and umpires bowing to each other. The pride, energy and enthusiasm of these young men are on full display. Players are at full speed at all times, including when they are "walked". Diving bunts and hit-and-runs are just as common as the home runs are rare.

Winning teams are rewarded with the playing of their school's anthem, the gratitude of their cheering section, and the chance to play again another day. The losing team faces a long trip home and the hope they get the chance to return someday. The first day we witnessed a classic, despite the cold, as all three games were decided by one run in the final innings.

Most unbelievably of all is the way the tournament is run. Unlike most amateur sports, the Japan High School Baseball Federation (Koyaren) actually follows incredibly strict rules meant to maintain the purity of the sport. Just about everyone involved with the tournament volunteers their time, from the umpires to the physical trainers. Games are broadcast only on public, commercial-free television, and rights are not granted to produce videos for sale. Koshien stadium, owned by Hanshin Railways (operators of the Hanshin Tigers pro baseball team), is rented out to the tournament free of charge, without written contract. In case of rainouts, Tigers games are canceled for Tournament games. These and other strict rules keep profiteering to a minimum. High School Baseball is run more like a national treasure than a business. If any amateur sports institution can claim freedom from commercial domination, it is the Koshien.

Just visiting Koshien stadium and attending these games was a dream come true for us. When we got to meet the officials in charge, and were treated to the VIP behind-the-scenes tour of Japan's proudest ballpark, while the tournament was underway, we were just beside ourselves. The hospitality they showed us was unbelievable. We could have gone home happy right then. Clearly baseball is a bond that can bring our two far corners of the world closer together.

Thank you all for your support. Without all of you, this project could never have gotten this far. Please feel free to contact us via email as we will do our best to respond.

- The Kokoyakyu Crew: Alex Shear, Kenneth Eng, Takayo Nagasawa, Colin Bressler, & Jennifer Soroko

Bound for Osaka - March 17th, 2003

My alarm went off at 4:20 AM, and for some reason, I get up and turn it off and jump right back into bed. Luckily, I woke up at 5:45 AM and alerted Alex the time. We both jump up and gather our belongings. I call Melanie's house and Jenn answers - thank god. She just got out of the shower. Takayo at this time has just left her apartment in Park Slope and is headed for the Brooklyn studio (Freespace). Colin on the other hand, had been waiting outside the studio door since 5:30 AM.

We all convene in Freespace and start bringing all the equipment and baggage upstairs where Takayo and the minivan await. We catch a quick ride to Laguardia. At the check in counter, we're greeted by the Northwest lady. After a few adjustments to our check-in baggage, we're finally in.

By the way, the Northwest Lady was crazy! She asked us if we knew anything about baseball(!), she almost forgot a few key stickers for our baggage, and she almost tagged the wrong bags. It was a very comical moment.

We get on the plane to Detroit. It took 2 hours - no problem. After a half-hour break we're on a 747 bound for Osaka!!!!!!!!

The day that never ended: This was definitely the mother of all plane rides(14 hour flight). After 3 meals and 4 movies, we find ourselves flying past Hokkaido. After the 9th hour of the ride, I started getting heat flashes and muscle spasms - nothing that a little Bailey's on the rocks couldn't solve. The best part of the plane ride must have been the movie: I Spy - Eddie Murphy and Owen Wilson provide for a session of thunderous laughter. I almost felt sorry for all the people sitting around me trying to sleep.

Exiting the plane was pretty damn exciting. Japanese people everywhere dressed in their respectable uniforms greeting us with sincere smiles. What a change of pace!

This must have been a brand new airport because everything was so clean and smelling good. The floor were so clean, you could have probably rolled around and eaten a 5 course meal off of it! Baggage claim was cool. At the area, there is a zone around the perimeter of the baggage conveyor where people stand with their carts in an orderly fashion. Everyone waits patiently for their belongings and steps to the side to accommodate their neighbor. I even saw this friendly guy help some elderly people with their bags!!! This is definitely different in NYC where you might get an elbow to the gut if you're seen touching someone else's bag.

Customs was a breeze, but here is where the action begins: between the 5 of us, we needed to somehow bring all of our stuff to our apartment (aka "weekly mansion"). This was hell!!!! Imagine trying to maneuver through rush hour traffic with 10 huge pieces of baggage along with hefty carry-ons! This was pretty damn stressful. The trip from Kansai airport to the center of town took about 40 minutes. We had to switch trains to the local service, and in doing so, we had to exit the subway terminal and find the local terminal. Thank god Takayo is in our crew. I can't even begin to imagine life without being able to communicate.

After a little bit of wandering, we finally met a super nice lady going home after work; she was so nice that she personally escorted us to the correct terminal and kindly went on her way - WOW!

We get off 5 stops later, and still lugging all this crazy gear around, we start to fade... starvation and exhaustion beckon. We regroup for about 20 minutes as we try to locate our weekly mansion. We're staying in the middle of Osaka (business district) so our neighborhood has pretty much cleared out. We lug our stuff for about 5 blocks and finally arrive. This was a good feeling. Rest is near...

The weekly mansion is surprisingly adequate for the price (I guess). There's enough space, bedding, we have a bathroom, shower, running water, kitchenette, and even weekly mansion slippers - how cute.

So we drop off all our stuff and agree that it is time to eat. We check our watches - it is now 8 pm in Osaka which means it's 6:00 AM on the East coast of America. We have just traveled for about 20 hours.

We eat at a local joint around the corner and enjoy our first beers and sake. Not to mention some deep fried tofu with soy sauce, some yakitori, and edamame - a healthy meal!

It is now 10:20PM and everyone is asleep except for me of course. Who knows what tomorrow holds.

- Ken

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