Second report of nine from Le Festival des Films du Monde. Collect all Nine!
When I purchased my booklet of ten tickets, I chose eight films right away, saving two tickets for the end of the festival on Labour Day, when the festival rebroadcasts audience favourites. The second of my choices was E2.28.2, Mr. Rookie, playing at the Eaton Centre at 12h15 on Wednesday, the 28th.
Mr. Rookie, 2001, Japan, directed by Satoshi Isaka, written by Satoshi Isaka & Takasha Suzuki, based on the novel by Dankan
As Mr. Rookie begins, it is almost the all-star break in the Japanese Baseball League and, as usual, the Hashin Tigers and the Tokyo Gullivers are locked in a battle for first place; a battle that the Tokyo team always seems to win. The relationship between the two teams is somewhat similar to that between the Boston Red Sox and the New York Yankees, with the Hashin Tigers being your hard-luck Red Sox substitute and the Tokyo Gullivers being your perennially successful, free-wheeling, easy-spending Yankees duplicate.
The movie proper begins during a critical game between the two teams as the Hashin Tiger’s pitcher falters and loads the bases in the top of the ninth with two out. The Tiger’s manager Segawa goes to the mound and calls for relief, at which point the center-field wall parts and pyro goes off to mark the arrival of player number 911, Mr. Rookie, the Tiger’s fireman who... (wait for it, wait for it) wears a tiger mask! In and of itself, this is a mind-boggingly awesome way to begin a movie, but when it turns out that the man that Mr. Rookie has been brought in to face is the Hashin Tigers former clean-up hitter/turncoat, a man known only as... (wait for it, wait for it) Mutoh, it becomes obvious that we have just entered Coboland, where the wrestling and the baseball and the cinema all get jumbled into one big digable stew. The intermingling of baseball and wrestling only becomes more pronounced later in the movie as, at a critical juncture, in a very Terry Funk moment, the retired player who batted clean-up for the last Tigers championship unretires for one last at-bat.
Sadly, the rest of the movie fails to live up to the promise of the first five minutes, as Mr. Rookie turns into Just Another Baseball Movie. Which, God knows, is not a bad thing, but it also misses out on an opportunity for greatness. Specifically, we find out that Mr. Rookie is Ohara Koji, an overworked salaryman in the promotions department of a Japanese brewery, who has successfully hidden his secret identity from his bosses, his wife and his young son, in the process running himself ragged. The only men who know of his secret are Segawa and Yang, the Tigers manager and trainer.
There are the obvious sitcom tensions at work here, as Ohara tries to fulfill his responsibilities as father, husband and salaryman, while also pitching for the Hashin Tigers on the side. His one advantage is that he only plays home games as part of his arrangement with Segawa. But there are other, deeper, tensions at work as well. From Segawa’s point of view, the mask is not just a way of keeping Ohara’s secret, it is a way of building a sense of mystique around Ohara’s pitching that will give Ohara an edge against the batters of the league. In that context, the fact that Ohara only plays in home games is almost an advantage, as it deepens the mystery and throws opposing batters off-balance. The problem with this is that there is an inescapable tension between Segawa’s creation of a super-hero fireman and Ohara’s status as a rookie; a tension worsened by the preexisting tension between the individualistic heroic position of a closer and its place in a team game. To a certain extent, you could argue that the entire concept of this film is that common back-handed insult to all relief pitchers: that they are only part-time players.
It is in that tension between rookie and veteran; between pitcher and batter; between everyday player and specialist, that the movie distinguishes itself, as the film opens open a window on the Japanese soul as seen through the prism of baseball. What stands out here are the tiny taken for granted moments that pass by. Compared to Mr. Baseball where Tom Selleck brought the film screeching to a halt every ten seconds to point out all things foreign, in Mr. Rookie they flash by at the speed of thought. Coaches at all levels, from Little League to the pros, tell their players to have fun and MEAN it, players bow to their opponents and to the umpires, close calls at the plate are greeted by acceptance rather than anger, benched players enthusiastically cheer on their teammates on the field, Mr. Rookie’s uniform reads 119 but means 911, and when Mr. Rookie bitches out the Hashin Tiger’s first baseman Tada for Bucknering an easy grounder, he goes from masked hero to pariah in a whiplash inducing instant. When Ohara refuses to apologize to Tada, Segawa calmly boots him off the team without even bothering to agonize over the decision.
Because the film starts at 100 miles an hour, in the middle of the season and, by extension, in the middle of the story, it is only when Ohara is benched that the origins of Mr. Rookie are explained. Coming home early for the first time since the baseball season started, Ohara is confronted by his wife who confirms her suspicion that he is Mr. Rookie. His explanation is thus the filling in a tantrum sandwich as his normally perky wife lets fly on the mother of all relationship rage rag-outs. This is one of those fits where you know your woman is angry about something, and you know that you have committed a multitude of sins to earn what you are about to receive, but you are not entirely clear on what specific item has boiled over the pot, and the more you guess wrong, the angrier she gets. One suspects that part of her no-doubt methedrine-fueled anger is caused by the recognition that she has been living with the man voted Osaka’s sexiest man, and he has not once brought his mask home to spice things up. In short, Ohara’s wife cuts his dick off and then in a brief show of contrition sews it back on only to reveal that she only did that because she missed the balls on the first cut, and she wants to make a clean sweep of his genitalia. After securing his manhood in her purse, Ohara’s wife kicks him out of their apartment telling him not to come back until he stops being a coward and wearing a mask to conceal his identity.
At which exact point, the movie lost me. Admittedly, this is the reaction of a wrestling junkie as well as a baseball fanatic and a cinema geek, but one has to wonder if Satoru Sayama’s wife ever told him to quit being a coward and take off the stupid Tiger Mask. I would be willing to bet pesos against dollars that El Santo’s wife never told him to take off that damn silver rag and face the world like a man. The notion that wearing a mask is the act of a coward I had always assumed was a typical wrong-headed Yankee notion. Finding this pernicious lie espoused by the Japanese is disconcerting. Certainly from Segawa’s point of view, the fact that the mask conceals Ohara’s identity is quite incidental to its purpose of giving Ohara an advantage by disconcerting his the opposing batters, and giving his players an advantage by putting them in touch with the Tiger spirit of the team itself.
The rest of the film can be foreseen by most fans of baseball cinema as the climax of the film brings Ohara, his family, his job and his team on a collision course on the last game of the year, a one game play-off against the hated Tokyo Gullivers. But the movie should not be judged by its ending which is trite and predictable. Merely for its first five minutes and the window that it opens on the Japanese character, this film is worth hunting down.