While I understood the necessity of the decision (considering the whole “ongoing global pandemic” thing), I was absolutely crushed when Japan Society canceled its “Aim for the Best: Sports in Japanese Cinema” retrospective last year. Fortunately, it has been revived in an online-only format—albeit greatly reduced in scope. Although I must admit to being mildly disappointed that such obscure treasures as Kenji Misumi’s The Sword failed to make the final cut, the rarity of the remaining three films is tantalizing enough to compensate for the event's overall lack of quantity.
Youth: The 50th National High School Baseball Tournament epitomizes the spirit of this mini-festival. Like Tokyo Olympiad, the documentary isn’t terribly preoccupied with the specific details of the eponymous competition. Instead, director Kon Ichikawa emphasizes the imagery of athleticism itself: bodies pushed to the breaking point by extreme exertion and exhaustion (often in excruciatingly protracted slow-motion shots); sweat-drenched brows; shoes kicking up dust, trudging through mud, and sliding across snow; and tears of joy and despair alike. Rather than crafting a concrete narrative, the editing creates a series of impressionistic collages; one particularly memorable montage, for example, depicts multiple players striking out in quick succession—the camera perfectly positioned to capture their frustration and dejection as they leave the batter’s box.
The sound design is equally exquisite, with the crunch of dirt underfoot, the rhythm of labored breathing, and the patter of rain on the training field immersing the viewer in the exhilarating atmosphere of the game. But Ichikawa also understands the inherent power of unexpected silence—as demonstrated by the emotionally devastating scene in which the members of a losing team assemble in their locker room to quietly reflect on the sting of their recent defeat.
As the narrator later comments: “One team must win and the other must lose. That is the nature of the game.” On the surface, this seems like a comically obvious observation; Ichikawa’s unique artistic vision, however, penetrates deep into the underlying subtext, transforming the initially simplistic sentiment into a profoundly compelling central theme.