The Vancouver Asahi shared its world premiere with the densely packed theatre of Vancouver’s The Centre for Performing Arts. In attendance was its director, Ishii Yuya (The Great Passage), joined by two of his star cast members, Tsumabuki Satoshi (Waterboys) and Kamenashi Kazuya (KAT-TUN), and the last surviving member of the Vancouver Asahi.
The film reveals a long-forgotten story in our city’s history: “Once upon a time in Vancouver, there was a baseball team called the Asahi,” formed by the Canadian-born kids of Japanese immigrants.
Ishii’s Asahi is composed of young working men, whose day jobs range from lumber mill workers to fishermen. Constant job shortages and low wages pave the departure for many of the Asahi’s players to distant cities. Among the few that remain is soft-spoken Reggie, played by Tsumabuki. As the team’s reluctant captain, he is adorable and lovable, and his shyness exudes an admirable sense of humility. Kamenashi’s Roy is the exact opposite. Impulsive, hard-headed and indignant, Roy’s rashness causes him to start a fight with a Mount Pleasant pitcher, effectively leading to the Asahi’s short suspension.
The film transitions between scenes of play and seriousness. One minute we are laughing and cheering; the next we are confronted with the impending doom of war, its effects on the Japanese-Canadian community and their struggle to assimilate themselves within Vancouver’s white Canadian culture.
One of the film’s most meaningful exchanges takes place between Reggie and Frank: “Is it worse being hated by the Canadians? Or by the Japanese?” Frank struggles to identify with either because he is neither: He is both.
Reggie’s younger sister, Emi (Miyazaki Aoi), provides another interesting perspective: educated and well versed in the English language, she is starkly different from her brother and his friends. Her early hopeful outlook — “They’re not all that bad” — is gently torn apart, and she eventually accepts, as does Roy, Reggie’s solemn words: It is what it is. Reggie’s acceptance of racial discrimination, however, is not a passive one; he learns to fight and win in other ways, especially on the field.
Often Ishii mutes his scenes, so we are left to assume and to read his characters’ faces before the film quickly resumes its sound and dialogue. In silence, we share our emotions with the stunned and awe-stuck Reggie when he hits his first home-run: We are left in anticipation — Did he make it? Was it a home-run? — before being invited to cheer along with the crowd. We, like the game’s audience, recognize the universality of baseball and understand its language, knowing how it feels to cheer for your winning team.
Repeatedly, we are invited to the Asahi’s ballgames, to mingle with the crowd, to share in its disappointment at losses and to cheer in the glory of its hilarious victories. The Asahi’s “brain ball” tactic of bunting is comically employed, and we are as equally entertained as the game’s actual audience.
On Vancouver’s history, Ishii is brief but truthful: He does not miss facts, he does not hide, nor does he dwell or overexaggerate. But his version of Vancouver seems subdued; perhaps he is too kind in his critique of Canadians, but his sympathetic characters only serve to make each name call and each rejection toward the Japanese-Canadians that much more harsh.
In one of the last scenes, when Reggie says his goodbyes to Roy as they board trains to their internment camps, we are given a moment to appreciate their hopefulness. Even though we know the fate of these men — we know they will probably never play baseball again, never mind play pro — we want to believe otherwise.
Ishii’s The Vancouver Asahi truly shines like the morning sun (literally ‘asahi’): His fictional retelling is playful and lighthearted, but its soft glow and aura will leave an imprint that will surely never leave your mind.