Taiwanese “Kano” Baseball Team Found its Field of Dreams in Prewar Japan

Baba Masaki (Interviewer)[Profile]

[2014.04.09] Read in: 日本語 | 简体字 | 繁體字 | ESPAÑOL |

The recent film Kano chronicles the inspiring tale of a 1931 Taiwanese baseball team that made it to the championship of Japan’s “Kōshien” high-school tournament. Singer-songwriter Baba Masaki sat down with the producer and director of Kano, Wei De-Shen and Umin Boya, to learn more about the film and the legendary Kano baseball team.

Wei De-Shen

Wei De-ShenBorn in the Taiwanese city Tainan in 1969. A film director, producer, and screen writer. In 1996 worked as assistant producer on the Japanese-Taiwanese film Umi hōzuki (English title: The Breath) directed by Hayashi Kaizō, and that same year was assistant director to Edward Yang on the Taiwanese film Mahjong. Directed and wrote the screenplay for the 2008 film Cape No. 7, which won the Taipei Golden Horse Award for Best Film that year (Taiwan’s equivalent to the Oscars)and went on to become the highest grossing Taiwanese film ever. His 2011 film Warriors of the Rainbow: Seedig Bale has also earned numerous awards inside and outside Taiwan.

Umin Boya

Umin BoyaA Taiwanese aborigine born in the city Hualien in 1978. An actor, film director, and screenwriter. Has appeared in numerous films and TV dramas since making his acting debut in 2000. Was nominated for the Golden Bell Awards (Taiwan’s equivalent of the Emmy Award) in 2003 as Best Supporting Actor in the TV drama Banquet. Appeared as an actor in the 2011 film Warriors of the Rainbow: Seedig Bale. Debuted as a director in 2008 with the mini-series Promised Not to Cry , which won a Golden Bell Award in the Best Director category. Kano is his first feature-length film as a director.

The Team that Took Japan by Storm

Every year in mid-August Japan’s national high-school baseball tournament is held at Kōshien Stadium near Kōbe. The tournament, commonly referred to simply as “Kōshien,” captures the attention of the nation. The August 2014 tournament will mark the 96th time for teams around Japan to compete at Kōshien.

The article on Kano by the writer Kikuchi Kan (far left, immediately under the top photo) that appeared in the August 22, 1931, Asahi Shimbun (from the collection of the National Diet Library).

In the period before the end of World War II, the competing teams also included the champions from Taiwan, Korea, and Manchuria, then under Japan’s colonial rule. In 1931, the team representing Taiwan created a sensation at Kōshien by nearly winning the championship. That team was Kagi Agriculture and Forestry Public School, known by its abbreviated name, “Kano.” (*1) The team’s members were of mixed nationalities, made up of Japanese, Taiwanese (i.e., Han Chinese born on the island), as well as Taiwanese aborigines.

The ability of the Kano players improved under the guidance of their coach Kondō Hyōtarō, who had led other teams back in Japan. After winning the 1931 Taiwan tournament, the team defeated one Japanese powerhouse after another that year at Kōshien, making it all the way to the championship. Unfortunately, Kano did not manage to win the title, but their breezy style of play captivated the fans at Kōshien—and even inspired the famous Japanese writer Kikuchi Kan to praise the team in his next-day coverage of the game for the Osaka Asahi Shimbun.

Until recently, the amazing performance of Kano in 1931 was a nearly forgotten legend, even in Taiwan. That changed when the Taiwanese director Wei De-Shen “excavated” the tale around 80 years later as the basis for the film Kano.

Wei, already well known for his past films Cape No. 7 and Warriors of the Rainbow: Seedig Bale, cowrote the screenplay for the film, while handing over the megaphone to Umin Boya, a young Taiwanese director.

As befits a film that depicts the glorious exploits of players from Japan and Taiwan, it was the team effort of a cast and crew made up of Taiwanese and Japanese members. The film stars many Japanese actors, most notably Nagase Masatoshi in the role of coach Kondō and Ōsawa Takao as Hatta Yoichi, a Japanese engineer known as “the father of the dam” in Taiwan for having designed the Wushantou Reservoir.

Prior to the Japanese release of Kano, the singer-songwriter Baba Masaki, a resident of Taiwan who was inspired by the film’s underdog tale, sat down to interview the film’s director Umin Boya and producer Wei De-Shen for Nippon.com.

“Contradictions” Within the Hearts of Taiwanese

INTERVIEWER  What gave you the idea to turn the story of the Kano baseball team into a movie?

WEI DE-SHEN I came across that tale quite by accident when I was collecting historical materials on the period of Japanese colonial rule for the filming of Seedig Bale. That was the starting point.

UMIN BOYA  I was thrilled when Wei told me about that story, especially since I was really into baseball as a kid. It reminded me of my days out on the baseball diamond.

INTERVIEWER  Wei, your earlier films Cape No. 7 and Seedig Bale were also set in the period of Japan’s colonial rule of Taiwan. Does this period have special significance for you?

WEI  It turned out that in depicting that period I was able to bring into clearer focus the themes that I wanted to address in those films. That is to say, looking through the historical materials on that period of colonial rule brought into clearer relief the emotional contradictions within the hearts of Taiwanese people today.

Historically speaking, Taiwan has not been the protagonist in its own story, but rather under the sway of outside forces. Taiwan might be described as an “orphan” with a succession of different “parents.” Even though now, in the 21st century, Taiwan has entered “adulthood” there is not yet awareness that we are no longer “orphans.” 

Mixed feelings of love and hate surround the period of Japanese rule, which had many aspects that do not fall neatly into the category of “good” or “evil.” For that reason, we tried to always bear closely in mind the different standpoints of the individuals living in that era, rather than falling into some sort of preconceived idea.

Kano is the story of how a team made up of Japanese, Taiwanese, and aborigines came together as one to pursue their shared dream. It was a period in which there were clear class differences between those three nationalities, but the members of each were able to fulfill themselves while also respecting the existence of the others. It was this historical reality that I wanted people to become aware of.

Cape No. 7 , Seedig Bale, and this latest film Kano are three works that depict the complex psychology of the period under Japanese rule, which was a mixture of regret, animosity, and grandeur—among other emotions. And each film questions our identity as citizens of Taiwan. We may have been “orphans” in the past, but now that we are “adults” at the stage of creating our own new family, I think it is important that we do not end up creating new “orphans.” 

Overcoming Differences to Create Kano

INTERVIEWER  The film Kano depicts Japanese and Taiwanese overcoming their ethnic differences to come together. And the film’s cast and crew, too, was made up of Japanese and Taiwanese. Did the cast and crew have to overcome barriers of language and nationality, just like the players depicted in the film?

UMIN  Working on Kano was my first experience of teaming up with overseas counterparts to create a film. I discovered that there are differences in the way that Taiwanese and Japanese approach their work. Japanese tend to stick to the schedule, while Taiwanese are a bit more flexible. But in the end we were able to work well together. I took extra time to communicate with the leading actor Nagase so that we could both be aware of the differences in each side’s approach before the shooting of the film began. Taiwanese tend to be full of enthusiasm for what they’re doing, while Japanese have a strong sense of pride in their work, but I think that there two aspects complimented each other and came together to create the finished work.

INTERVIEWER  Another aspect of the film’s story is how the coach Kondō and the players tackle a challenging goal and develop themselves in the process. This also seems similar to the challenges that each of you undertook, respectively, by working for the first time as a director and as a producer, and similar to the acting newcomers in the roles of baseball players.

WEI  The mentality needed to be a producer is completely different from the mindset of a director. As producer, I was not in charge of the day-to-day shooting, but I had to make sure that the film didn’t go over budget and that there was enough time. I didn’t want to compromise on the creation of the film, but at the same time, as producer, I had to keep the costs down. This meant I had to straddle the line between our ideal and the reality. It was necessary to balance both sides, because a director gets put in a quandary if the producer is only harping on about keeping costs low. One way I tried to do this was by editing each scene after it was shot and then discussing it with the director. That way we could avoid having to reshoot some scenes.

UMIN  Up to now I’ve only directed short films. So making the leap to a feature-length film required the sort of mental adjustment that a short-distance runner would require to enter a marathon. I was fortunate to be working with a perfect script for Kano, so the biggest challenge came down to shooting the baseball scenes in a realistic way. We needed to convey to the audience that the Kano team was really strong. To do that, we opted to choose people who were really good at baseball to play the actors, even though they were acting newcomers. They were a mixed bunch, nationality-wise, but the Chinese speakers and Taiwanese aborigines really worked hard to memorize their lines in Japanese.

INTERVIEWER  The former Kano team member Wu Bo(*2)—a Taiwanese baseball pro who played in Japan and is enshrined in the Nippon Professional Baseball Hall of Fame—also appears in the film, doesn’t he?

UMIN That’s right. Wu Bo is a bit younger than the members of that first team to make it to Kōshien, but he was one of the players coached by Kondō. In the film, we see him as a boy. By the way, we invited descendents of Wu Bo living in Japan to attend the February 27 opening of the film in Taipei.

INTERVIEWER  From your perspective as a producer, what do you think is the most captivating quality that Umin has as a director?

WEI  Unlike me, Umin has experience as an actor, so he has real insight into how actors think. He’s also very good at wielding the carrot and the stick when it comes to guiding the unprofessional actors in the film, who were of an age that can be difficult to deal with.

I really wanted to bring the Kano story to the big screen, but I didn’t think I was the one to shoot it. My feeling was that Umin Boya—who has baseball experience and is also a Taiwanese aborigine—was born to direct a film like this, and he must think the same thing.

INTERVIEWER  Kano was screened at the Osaka Asia Film Festival on March 7. What was your message for the viewers in Japan?

WEI  Already my films Cape No. 7 and Seedig Bale were shown in Japan, so my hope was that this latest film, Kano, will be a hit among Japanese viewers. I’d also like the viewers to become aware of a period when Japanese and Taiwanese came together to pursue a dream.

UMIN  I am proud that Kano is quite unlike baseball movies up to now. My hope is that viewers will come away with the feeling that heart-to-heart interaction knows no national boundaries, and for people to be aware of the weight of the history that the people of Taiwan and Japan created together.

© ARS Film Production

Official Kano website: https://www.facebook.com/Kano.japan (Japanese)
Trailer for Kano: http://youtu.be/pmG6LuRxilw
Photographs by Liu Shih-I

(*1) ^ Kagi Agriculture and Forestry Public School (“Kano”) was established in 1919 by the Japanese colonial government in Taiwan. “Kagi” was the name under Japanese rule for present-day Chiayi, a city in southwestern Taiwan. The initial name of the school was Taiwan Public Agricultural School. In 1945 the school became the Taiwan Provincial Chiayi Agri-Vocational School. It merged with National Chiayi Teachers College in 2000, creating National Chiayi University. After making its first Kōshien appearance in 1931, where it finished second, the prewar Kano team gained a reputation throughout Japan as a baseball powerhouse.

(*2) ^ Wu Bo (1916 –1987) was born in the Taiwanese city Tainan, then under Japanese colonial rule. He played for the Kano baseball team and was coached by Kondō Hyōtarō. As a Kano team member, he participated three times in the summer Kōshien tournament and once in the spring tournament at Kōshien. Earned the nickname the “human locomotive” for his barefoot speed on the baseball diamond. Became a professional baseball player in Japan under the Japanese name Go Shōsei, becoming the top batter two seasons in a row (1942–43). Played as both outfielder and pitcher, and pitched the first “perfect game” (no hits, no runs) in postwar play. After becoming a Japanese citizen his name changed to Ishii Shōsei but he still played under the name Go Shōsei. Was inducted into the Nippon Professional Baseball Hall of Fame in a special ceremony held in 1995.

  • [2014.04.09]

Singer-songwriter. Born in Sendai in 1963. Career has included postings as the deputy director of the Japan Foundation’s Beijing Office and as the director of the Taipei office of the Interchange Association, Japan. Since his retirement he established Dandelion Music Communications in 2013 in Taiwan. He is also the vocalist for the Baba Band and Battery, along with activities as a songwriter and actor. He wrote the theme song of the 2012 Taiwanese film Touch of the Light, which was performed by Tanya Chua, a Singaporean female vocalist and winner of Taiwan’s coveted Golden Melody Award. (Profile photograph by Jonny Wei.)

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