A/P/A Heritage Series
A month-long series of Asian-Pacific American stories to celebrate A/P/A Heritage Month
When I sat down at the Los Angeles Asian Pacific Film Festival to see The Vancouver Asahi, I thought I was just going to see a baseball movie. One where the underdog team somehow finds a way to overcome adversity and become champions. Sometimes that adversity is your gender, your race, being too small, or simply having a place to play.
The Vancouver Asahi has a lot of all of the above. The story of a Japanese-Canadian baseball team in pre-World War II Vancouver, the Asahi play year after year with losing records. Champions of heart but losers on the field. Set in Vancouver’s bustling Japantown, every year the working class men get together and play because it is the one luxury they are afforded in a time when luxuries are nonexistent. The movie, like life, weaves subplots of race, gender, and class relations into the story of this baseball clan.
Director Yuya Ishii released this film in 2014 on the heels of his success with the film The Great Passage, which won critical acclaim and was Japan’s selection for the Best Foreign Film category for last year’s Oscars.
The movie begins with a voice over introducing us to this group of Japanese immigrants who journeyed to Vancouver, Canada and found a way to create a community in the crevasse of Caucasian middle and upper classes.
Led by Reggie (Satoshi Tsumabuki), the ragtag group of baseball players realize the way to beat the larger, slower white guys is to play short and fast. As they win games through bunting and baserunning, they also win the hearts of, not only their community, but of all Canadians. The movie ends when the Asahi are disbanded and forced into internment camps.
It was these end credits that really stirred something in me. I remembered that this wasn’t a mastery of fiction, this was nonfiction. The Asahi were a real Canadian baseball team in Vancouver from 1914 to 1941. They won the Pacific Northwest Championship not just once, but five years in a row. Their playing style of bunts and stealing bases, labeled “brain ball,” wasn’t just the plot points of a screenplay, but heralded in actual newspaper pages. And though the Asahi were disbanded, baseball continued to be a small glimmer of hope for a community in dire need of it. A good double-feature would have been to watch this and then see American Pastime, which focuses on Japanese-Americans who were forced into internment but played baseball while in the camps.
The story of the Japanese in internment camps has stood on the fringes of Western History. A still reluctantly addressed part of history, it is one that can be bravely addressed in movies like The Vancouver Asahi because after watching and rooting for this group of athletes, you are faced with the ominous reminder that, no matter who was rooting for them, by 1942 they were considered combatants and a threat.
The tale of the Asahi is one that is ripe for a sports movie. Though it employs many of the genre’s tropes and cliches, you forgive it because it is a story that really happened. Inducted into the Canadian Baseball Hall of Fame in 2003, the Asahi weren’t just a fictional feel-good tale, but a real life story of overcoming adversity during an unromantic and oft overlooked part of history.
LATA PANDYA | @LataPandya
Lata Pandya is an award-winning TV and radio journalist. Currently she works as a producer on the Los Angeles-based public television news magazine show SoCal Connected. She freelances with several news organizations in the LA Area. Lata holds an undergraduate degree from University of California, Santa Barbara and a graduate degree from the Annenberg School for Communication and Journalism at the University of Southern California. She is known to be notorious about watching sports while researching public policy stories. Lata is a 2015 Dat Winning fellow.