The Tokyo Summer Games aren’t until July. For the good folks over at Japan Society, this week was still a perfect occasion to announce their Spring program, Aim for the Best: Sports in Japanese Cinema, enlisting a hearty round of more than a dozen titles.
Like cinema, sports have been integral to the development of
modern Japan since the late 19th century when the country opened its borders to the West. Intersecting these two major cultural forces is the multifaceted and ubiquitous sports film, a fluid genre that offers fascinating insight into issues related to Japanese national identity, gender roles and the clash between tradition and modernity. Organized in anticipation of the Tokyo 2020 Summer Games, Aim for the Best: Sports in Japanese Cinema celebrates the Japanese sports film in its myriad iterations—covering a wide range of athletic disciplines and filmmaking styles, from wartime Japan to the present—including classics, documentaries, anime and commercial crowd-pleasers.
The series opens on April 10 through 25, starting with a 35mm screening of Masayuki Suo’s award-winning sports comedy Sumo Do, Sumo Don’t, followed by a post-screening Sumo Party with chankonabe (a hearty
stew commonly eaten by sumo wrestlers), drinks, and a sumo demonstration.
Other titles include Takahisa Zeze’s The Chrysanthemum and the Guillotine, Akira Kurosawa’s judo pic, Sanshiro Sugata, Kenji Misumi’s postwar kendo classic, The Sword, and many more listed in the gallery at the bottom of the page.
“With the Summer Games in Tokyo on the horizon, this is a perfect opportunity to consider the
longstanding tradition of putting Japanese sports on the big screen,” says K. F. Watanabe, series curator
and Deputy Director of Film at Japan Society. “From sumo to baseball, the intersection of sports with Japanese cinema offers rich insight into some of the most salient issues in Japan’s modern history, including how sports have served to define its social and political values as a compromise between tradition and globalizing change.”
Check out the gallery bekow, and/or click here to view the line-up and get your tickets now.
AIM FOR THE BEST
1. SUMO DO, SUMO DON'T - Dir. Masayuki Suo, 1992, 105 min., 35mm
*Followed by a Sumo Party
Before receiving global acclaim for the smashing success of Shall We Dance? (1996), director Masayuki
Suo had another major hit with this light-hearted comedy about a ragtag group of misfits who
eventually find their self-worth by resurrecting a nearly defunct university sumo club. Gently poking fun at the outmoded traditions of Japan’s ancient sport while also celebrating its inherent values, Suo’s modern and comedic take on sumo transcends national specificity in a way that could inspire anyone to strap on a mawashi belt and step into the ring. A critical and commercial favorite, the film swept the 16th Japan Academy Prize in almost every major category.
2. SANSHIRO SUGATA - Sat., Apr. 11 at 2 pm Dir. Akira Kurosawa, 1943, 79 min., 35mm
Made under the watchful eye of the Japanese wartime government, Akira Kurosawa’s first film as a
director is an adaptation of a popular novel about the legitimization of judo, based on the life of one of its earliest disciples, Shiro Saigo, and his training with the martial art’s founder Kano Jigoro. Despite the film’s required conformity to imperial national policy, Kurosawa’s authorial trademarks—including his recurring interest in the master-disciple dynamic, his influence from Western-style filmmaking and his masterful command of film technique—are clearly evident, resulting in a fascinating debut that offers a blueprint for understanding one of cinema’s greatest filmmakers.
3. I WILL BUY YOU - Sat., Apr. 11 at 4 pm Dir. Masaki Kobayashi, 1956, 111 min., 35mm
Before taking on the Japanese feudal system in anti-establishment jidaigeki masterpieces such as
Harakiri (1962), director Masaki Kobayashi turned his attention to the world of professional sports with this scathing indictment of the baseball industry and postwar capitalist greed. Battling against rival teams, a talent scout for the major league Toyo Flowers goes all out to sign a star college baseball
player—a cutthroat process involving bribery, deception and back room deals—at the risk of losing his humanity. Mostly ignoring the game of baseball in itself, Kobayashi’s atypical, noir-tinged sports film takes its action off the field to remind us that everybody has a price.
4. THE SWORD - Sat., Apr. 11 at 7 pm Dir. Kenji Misumi, 1964, 94 min., 35mm
One of the rare non-jidaigeki (period drama) films directed by Kenji Misumi—best known for his
contributions to the Lone Wolf and Cub and Zatoichi swordplay film series—The Sword nevertheless
evokes the bushido spirit through the story of an exceptionally talented kendo club captain whose
ascetic devotion to the centuries-old practice draws the ire of his less-disciplined assistant. Adapted from a short story by Yukio Mishima and released the same year Japan hosted their first Olympics, The Sword positions the battle over kendo supremacy as an ideological conflict between feudal traditionalism and postwar modernity in determining the future of Japan. A psychologically tense drama beautifully rendered with widescreen black-and-white cinematography.
5. WATERBOYS - Wed., Apr. 15 at 7 pm Dir. Shinobu Yaguchi, 2001, 91 min., DCP
Initially lured by the prospect of getting close to a beautiful new coach, five awkward students at an all-boys high school sign up for a synchronized swimming club despite having little athletic ability and even less coordination, finding some help from an eccentric dolphin trainer along the way. Known for hit commercial fish-out-of-water comedies, Swing Girls (2004) director Shinobu Yaguchi landed his first major success with this teen comedy, a heartwarming crowd-pleaser that maximizes the pleasures of the sports film genre—including unconventional training sequences and a show-stopping finale—while
providing playful commentary on masculinity and traditional gender roles.
6. WOMEN'S SPORTS IN 20th CENTURY JAPAN - Sat., Apr. 18 at 1 pm Free Talk Event
Dr. Robin Kietlinski, Associate Professor of History at CUNY-LaGuardia Community College and author of Japanese Women and Sport: Beyond Baseball and Sumo (Bloomsbury Academic Press, 2012), discusses the entry of Japanese women into the domestic and international sporting arenas, focusing on some of the barriers they have broken in the past century of competition. In conjunction with Japan Society's sports film series, this talk will shed light on the ways sports offer an interesting (and often under-explored) lens into historical changes within Japanese society. By looking at the situation of Japanese sportswomen within a broader international context of women's competitive sports, this talk considers how participation in sports has challenged and shaped traditional stereotypes of womanhood over the past century in Japan.
7. THE CHRYSANTHEMUM AND THE GUILLOTINE - Sat., Apr. 18 at 3 pm Dir. Takahisa Zeze, 2018, 189 min., DCP
Amid the sociopolitical turmoil following the 1923 Great Kanto Earthquake, a group of radical male anarchists who call themselves the Guillotine Society cross paths with an itinerant female sumo troupe
and form a bond strengthened by their shared resistance to rising militarism and racist vigilante nationalists targeting socialists and Koreans. Chronicling a country caught between flowering liberal
democracy and a reactionary shift towards fascism, Takahisa Zeze’s exhilarating and sprawling epic
paints a compelling portrait of the late Taisho era using historical incidents and figures while highlighting the little-known story of Japanese women’s sumo—a sport that continues to relegate women’s participation to non-professional circuits.
8. AIM FOR THE BEST! - Sat., Apr. 18 at 7 pm Dir. Osamu Dezaki, 1979, 88 min., DCP
Following the Tokyo 1964 Summer Olympics and the domestic excitement surrounding Japanese
athletes, the sports manga and anime genre (supokon) became popular in Japan in the late 1960s
and ’70s, including several shojo (youth female-oriented) series. Among the most iconic and influential of these is Aim for the Best!, created by Sumika Yamamoto, about an insecure high school girl who strives to become a professional tennis player with the guidance of a mysterious coach and the rivalry of an older teammate. Adapted by the pioneering anime director Osamu Dezaki, the subsequent theatrical
film features his innovative and psychedelic visual style that pushed animation in bold new directions,
presented in a brand new digital remaster.
9. A TALE OF SORROW AND SADNESS - Tues., Apr. 21 at 7 pm Dir. Seijun Suzuki, 1977, 93 min., 35mm
Fired from Nikkatsu studio for making “incomprehensible” films, iconoclastic filmmaker Seijun Suzuki returned to the director’s chair after a decade of exile working in television with this characteristically bizarre critique of advertising and celebrity culture based on a story by sports manga legend Ikki Kajiwara (Ashita no Joe). In need of a new cover girl to boost advertising sales, the top brass of a large sports magazine manufacture the latest Japanese sports star: an amateur golfer who looks good in a bikini. When the golfer’s fame attracts the unwanted attention of a crazed housewife stalker, however, she finds herself terrorized by a blackmail scheme and Suzuki makes a sharp turn into surreal psychological thriller territory.
10. KOSHIEN: JAPAN'S FIELD OF DREAMS - Fri., Apr. 24 at 7 pm Dir. Ema Ryan Yamazaki, 2019, 94 min., DCP *Followed by a Q&A with director Ema Ryan Yamazaki
Every summer in Japan, baseball fans are swept up in the thrill of Koshien, the wildly popular national
high school baseball championship named after Osaka’s hallowed Koshien Stadium. On the historic 100th
anniversary of the single elimination tournament, documentary filmmaker Ema Ryan Yamazaki follows
the coaches and players of two promising teams as they undergo rigorous training—a process that
reveals a uniquely Japanese and exceptionally martial approach to the Western sport that emphasizes
self-sacrifice and spiritual conditioning. Yamazaki’s perceptive film offers Japanese baseball as a
microcosm of a nation that continues to balance respect for tradition with the adoption of progressive
11. IDATEN (EP. 1: "Before The Dawn" - Sat., Apr. 25 at 2 pm Dir. Tsuyoshi Inoue, 2019, 58 min., DCP *Free screening introduced by producers Mio Ietomi and Kei Kurube, followed by a talk presentation
Every year, NHK (Japan’s public broadcaster) produces a yearlong historical drama series known as their
“taiga drama.” Last year’s taiga drama Idaten, presented in celebration of the 55th anniversary of the
1964 Summer Olympics and in anticipation of the 2020 edition, focused on the history of Japanese
sports and Japan’s participation in the Olympics throughout the 20th century—only the second taiga
drama to ever involve postwar Japanese history. In this special free screening and talk event, the pilot
episode of Idaten screens for the first time with English subtitles, followed by a talk presentation about
the project and its contexts by two of the show’s key producers.
12. TOKYO PARALYMPICS: FESTIVAL OF LOVE AND GLORY - Sat., Apr. 25 at 4:30 pm Dir. Kimio Watanabe, 1965, 63 min., DCP *International Premiere *Introduced by Dr. Dennis Frost, Associate Professor of East Asian Social Sciences at Kalamazoo College
This summer, Tokyo will be the first city to host the Paralympic Games on two separate occasions. This
frank and intimate documentary—recently rediscovered and restored after being forgotten in storage
for decades—offers a fascinating glimpse of the first occasion in 1964, the 2nd official Paralympics, by
following the journey of several pioneering Japanese athletes whose participation (along with that of
over 300 other athletes from 20 countries) helped raise disability awareness and change prevailing
stigmas in their home countries. An important addendum to Kon Ichikawa’s iconic Tokyo Olympiad
(1965), this long-forgotten and vital documentary screens outside of Japan for the first time.
13. YOUTH: THE 50th NATIONAL HIGH SCHOOL BASEBALL TOURNAMENT - Sat., Apr. 25 at 7 pm Dir. Kon Ichikawa, 1968, 96 min., DCP *International Premiere
Among the hardest-to-see films in Kon Ichikawa’s oeuvre, this 1968 documentary finds the legendary
director approach the subject of Japanese high school baseball with the same lyricism and visual splendor as he did with the 1964 Summer Games in Tokyo Olympiad (1965). On the 50th anniversary of the Koshien games, Ichikawa captures the uniquely rigorous training—in snow, dirt and schoolyard
lots—of the young athletes preparing for the all-important tournament, interspersed with historical
footage that contextualizes Japan’s long love affair with student baseball. A thrilling portrait of youth in the economic boom of the postwar period, Ichikawa’s rare film encapsulates an entire generation through sports.