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TELEVISION REVIEW

Their education hits all the bases

The Japanese obsession with America's national pastime is captured in `Kokoyakyu: High School Baseball.'

July 08, 2006|Tony Perry | Times Staff Writer

To know the heart and mind of America, one must know baseball, the cultural scholar Jacques Barzun has said.

The same is true of Japan, which imported the game late in the 19th century and turned it into an enduring national obsession.

"Kokoyakyu: High School Baseball," tonight's "P.O.V." documentary on PBS, captures one part of that obsession, the determination of high school teams to win the summer tournament known as Koshien, after the stadium in Nishinomiya.

Koshien stadium is the oldest and most venerated baseball venue in Japan, the equivalent of Yankee Stadium, Fenway Park and Wrigley Field. Teams from 4,000 schools dream of reaching the "sacred dirt" of Koshien.

Done with subtitles, and without narration or deep-thinker interviews, "Kokoyakyu" brings us the players, coaches, parents, yell leaders and spectators who make the Koshien a life-altering experience.

The pressure to excel, to compete, to win, is enormous, but "Kokoyakyu" is not a muckraker.

The players have the individual discipline and group cohesion for which their nation is known. The game is a test of physical skills, but the real goal is to develop the spirit and heart of the player.

They arrive early for school for practice and then stay late, for the same reason.

The same zeal extends to yell leaders (mostly boys) and cheerleaders (all girls). Once their team loses, their yelling and cheering season is over. The yelling is more like howling, particularly after losses.

The approach of director-editor Kenneth Eng is intimate but never intrusive. He follows two schools: one private, one public. Players are seen both on the field and in self-criticism sessions in the classroom.

Baseball is fundamentals, drill and more drill, individual effort contributing to team achievement. A player explains, eyes downcast, that once he thought only of himself, but now he knows the value of the team.

The joy of victory and, in particular, the agony of defeat are palpable.

In defeat, one of the taskmaster coaches softens and tells one of his graduating stars: "Have children and teach them baseball: Have a good life." Both coach and player are filled with tears.

For an American audience, "Kokoyakyu" succeeds marvelously on two levels. First, it is a look at a culture different from the U.S., one, for example, in which teenagers apparently have unquestioned obedience to adult authority. Imagine that.

But it also has a universal side. Any former Little Leaguer who remembers dreaming of Williamsport, Pa., site of the Little League World Series, knows the messianic pull of Koshien.

"Baseball is an education: That is what I believe," says one of the losing coaches.

An education that knows few national borders.

*

'P.O.V.'

'Kokoyakyu: High School Baseball'

Where: KCET

When: 9 tonight

Rating: TV-G (suitable for all ages)

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