It faces all the problems of yet-another Sports Movie PLUS all the problems of yet-another Historical Drama. So, does the historical-sports-drama-movie called Kano strike out or knock it out of the park? (That’s the last baseball pun for this review, I promise!)
Kano is a new Taiwanese film, a dramatization of the real-life Kano baseball team (and a self-described “motley” crew), that started in the rural Japanese-occupied Taiwanese countryside of 1931 and made it all the way to the Empire’s final playoffs in Koshien, Japan. Overall, the film is a beautiful and earnest attempt to capture the “fighting spirit” that must be necessary to maintain dignity and achieve success against such overwhelming odds, and, despite a few narrative missteps and overly melodramatic moments, not to mention a long 185 minutes running time, Kano emerges as a satisfying and emotionally resonant film.
One key element that is established right away is the sense of “place” captured by the cinematography. At times enhanced by (some basic but otherwise competent) CGI, the film displays some epic shots of time and place, even in the first few scenes– the bustling shipping and trains of Keelung harbor, the 50,000 seat arena in Koshien, the wide, green rice fields in the farms of Chiayi (then called Kagi.) Watch for the unsteady but sweeping tracking shot that follows two youngsters riding their bike through the farms, or the sweeping crane shot that introduces us to downtown Chiayi’s central fountain and bustling village scene. There is loving care to take in as much of the establishing shots as possible, honoring the setting as if it’s as important as the characters that populate it.
This is further enhanced as the theme of “earth” and “water” become important visual motifs. After all, K.A.N.O. is really an acronym for the Kagi Agriculture And Forestry Public School– these athletes are really just high school youth whose team started as part of their physical education but quickly became something more when Kondo (retired and relocated from Japan) became their coach. These are farmers from a farming town, training in a dirt field and taking laps through rice paddies. There is a visceral quality when the athletes play through dust and mud, when the farmers till the earth, when the characters greet rain and survive a typhoon. The metaphor of growing fruit (papaya!) becomes an important, recurring rallying cry as the athletes themselves grow. Later, the Kano players are fascinated by the black soil of Japan, and even want to carry some back with them at the end of the film. Symbolically, at that point the coach takes the black earth and smears it on his white shirt. He says that it’s not important what the earth is like, as people are the same anywhere. It’s another reminder that it’s possible to be “people of the earth” and proud of your roots, and it further reinforces the theme that there is strength in being part of a multi-ethnic team such as Kano’s.
The other key element is a sense of “youth.” Obviously, the main players are all young men, ostensibly high schoolers, and there is a sense of exuberance and energy whenever they are together. They enjoy the game, they sing rallying cries to themselves, they get into fights to defend their team, and roughhouse or hang on each other throughout the film. It’s not hard to buy into their camaraderie, and much of the film’s humor and good nature is established through their interaction. Still, it’s a feature of the genre to have a big cast like this, and as is often the case, the majority of these characters are reduced to the background and may have only one or two, if any, featured scenes. For instance, two of the teammates must graduate halfway through the film, and despite their being built up, they are thus sidelined and regulated to just a few point of view shots during the Big Game in the final act. Things like this add to the already burgeoning running time, and I kind of wish for the sake of an economic plot that the filmmakers erred on the side of brevity, concentrating their focus on only the key players.
Because it’s obvious the key characters of the film are the pitcher Go Akira (Tsao Yu-Ning, 曹佑寧) and coach Hyataro Kondo (Masatoshi Nagase). As befitting the genre, Go starts with virtually no skill and then ends up the star performer in the final game, which becomes a tension-filled battle of willpower as he bites back pain from an injury to keep fighting until the bitter end. Interestingly, and perhaps despite the genre conventions, his teammates and coach support him in this decision even when it becomes obvious they will lose. And even in their loss, they become the stars of the game and important figures of Taiwanese (and therefore multi-ethnic) pride. It’s an odd combination of individual tenacity and group support.
Still, Go’s character development isn’t really that– development, I mean. There is no real arc to his character and his determination and “growth” is really just in service to the plot and theme. We don’t really know why, for example, that Go (or really any of his teammates) continue to play baseball, even when the odds were against them, when the town nearly withdrew their support, or when they hit those “all hope is lost” moments.
Kondo, on the other hand, has more of a narrative arc. He starts off as a disgraced and disregarded shell of a coach, despite being a family man and civil servant, and gives of himself to help the youth become greater than their humble beginnings. The drive to get to Koshien is just as much a redemption of himself as it is to highlight what inspires him about baseball (the teamwork and synergy, become greater as a sum of its parts.) But again, perhaps because of ensemble nature of the film, some important developments of his history and his relationship with his wife have to remain glossed over, or perhaps better, left assumed.
When the film does shift away from strictly being about the game and the momentum carrying everyone to Koshien, the film focuses on the town itself– there are more than a few cutaways to track the development of the Kanan canal (the Chianan Irrigation, 嘉南大圳) at the time the biggest construction of its kind in Asia, and its engineer, a Mr. Hatta. It does well to again highlight the pride of “place” that I talked about, as well as help showcase the difficulty faced by farmers a mere four generations ago, but it definitely sidetracks from the narrative overall and, again, pads out that running time. What’s more, the melodramatic way all the characters fawn over Hatta like a celebrity seems oddly out of place. Similarly, and just as strangely, there is a lot of set-up with Go and a potential love interest, who is nevertheless “matchmaked” away before the second act, but STILL is included in several scenes, along with her husband, and yes, her baby, even though she never interacts with Go directly in any of these useless scenes.
This is an example of the film taking advantage of the time piece of its setting just as much as the sense of place. Although I still think they are out of place, it helps to celebrate the uniqueness of Taiwan during this time, as so many forces are at play in its daily life– the struggle for modernity while still caught in the traditions of farming and matchmaking, for example. It’s even more clear that the film wants to acknowledge a truly unique aspect of this story, and that’s the multiculturalism at play. There are several times when the film points out that the Kano team is stronger for its diversity– the Japanese are great at defense, the Han (Chinese) are fleet of foot, and the locals (Taiwanese/aboriginals) are powerful hitters. However, only a couple of times does this distinction flare up (and is nearly repeated verbatim) and the rest of the film takes it for granted. Remember the Titans in, uhm, Remember the Titans? They had this theme as the central conflict, and I can’t tell if it makes for a better story, although it definitely does a more economical one. Instead, here in Kano, there isn’t any internal conflict at all among the team,
There are other, more subtle nods, to the time piece of this setting. Only Go seems to have a bicycle, judging from the way his teammates constantly want to bum rides off of him, and the principal of the school is keenly aware of the role agriculture will play in Taiwan’s development, breeding new bananas and papayas in the background. These subtleties are appreciated, and it would make for a more sophisticated treatment of such issues. So, when a Japanese reporter in Koshien has to monologue about the racial diversity in order to make the subtext into actual text, it’s eye-rollingly melodramatic. I wish it would be filled with more of the subtle techniques, such as a recurring situation of the runners chanting their song to keep in time– “Oxcart get out of the way; the train is coming through!”– it speaks to the time, place, and themes of progress and futurism in a more understated metaphorical way.
But even without the commentary of setting and establishment of themes, Kano as a film contains plenty of tension to carry the viewer through the plot, especially in the climax. The last third of the film is all about the final games in Koshien, complete with the blood, sweat, and tears and the sheer force of will on display by the team. What’s strange, however, is that it takes this long to re-introduce a character that was among the very first characters we ever see in the film at the beginning of Act 1. Joshiya (Aoki Ken), a Japanese soldier, is on his way to deployment in Taiwan, until his reminisce/flashback starts the movie proper in a bit of non-linear and somewhat confusing structure. When he catches up in the flashback to appear as a rival, he nevertheless has a change of heart to begin to root for Kano, to the point of leading the rest of the stadium to erupt in support. The film intercuts that with “present-day” Joshiya going out of his way to appreciate the abandoned dirt field of his former enemies.
If anything, you could accuse the film of trying just a little too much. The score, while often somewhat limited, emphasizes the epic sweeps with swelling music, although a bit too often to avoid melodrama. The sound is impressive, at least in the quiet moments when it’s filled with background sounds, like carefully placed windchimes or the weight of the athlete’s breath. The actors bring an intensity to their gaze and a genuineness to their banter, both verbal and physical. You really are brought to care about the game they are playing (and to some extent the players themselves) which makes this particular moment in time and certain place feel like a very grand moment indeed, and the viewer is made richer in appreciation of history and of the human spirit because of it. That, perhaps, is the best review I can give it.
Credits: Kano (2014). Directed by Umin Boya. Screenplay by Ruby Chen and Wei Te-Sheng.