September 10, 2015
Kano – Taiwan, 2014
Were it released in the United States, I have no doubt that Umin Boya’s Kano would be compared to 1986’s Hoosiers. After all, both films are underdog stories about teams from rural areas led by coaches carrying a great deal of mental baggage. They are also both based on true stories, and each of them inspires pride in the places where they occurred. Hoosiers is often referred to as one of the greatest sports movies of all time, while some local reviewers and bloggers have praised Kano as being a masterpiece. This is not a sentiment that I share entirely.
Kano is the true story of a bunch of high school students in 1931. They are from different backgrounds, most being Japanese, the others of Chinese and Taiwanese descent. Part of Kano’s legend is that these young men put all traces of ethnic strife and separatism behind them, came together, and formed one heck of a baseball team. In fact, the team is referred to time and time again as a “motley crew,” partly because of their ethnic make-up and partly, I suppose, due to the fact that don’t win a single game before their amazing 1931 season.
Given such a set up, it would seem only natural for the early parts of the film to detail how they came together, yet Kano goes in a different direction. When we first see the young men who will eventually comprise the team, almost all of them are at a makeshift field playing together and having quite a grand old time. They’re not very good, but they enjoy the game and seem to have quite a devotion to it. They catch the attention of Hyotaro Nagase (Masatoshi Nagase), a disgraced former player in Japan, and he is roped into coaching them. The first half of the film is devoted much more to this character than the players on the team, although we do get to know one player pretty well. That character is Akira Go (Yu-ning Tsao), who will eventually become Kano’s ace on the mound, as well as their clean-up hitter.
This leaves the film little time to develop any of its other supporting characters. A teacher who supports the team is not given much to do other than spout whimsical explanations concerning the growing of papayas, the love of Go’s young life only appears in a few scenes and never becomes more than a footnote, and Go’s teammates are denied the screen time necessary for them to distinguish themselves fully. If there is a real difference in their characters, I could never put my finger on it. Even Nagase’s wife remains aloof. The film devotes a few scenes to depicting her as a woman understandably more worried about feeding her own family than feeding her husband’s players. However, soon we see her bringing noodles for the team without ever knowing how this was managed, especially considering all the talk of food rationing.
Much of the first part of the film is mainly devoted to the team’s training and improvement. Interesting, this development is paralleled nicely with the completion of an irrigation canal, the importance of which is apparent even to the young boys. The canal’s chief architect received the kind of attention that modern teenagers usually reserve for pop stars. The second half of the film details the team’s effort to win a high school baseball tournament in Japan. This half has a brisker pace than the first, yet it occasionally gets bogged down by the very games that are supposed to deliver the thrills. It is one things to show a pivotal moment in the fifth inning, quite another to show the first three batters of a game strike out. Viewers not fascinated by the ins and outs of baseball may find some of these scenes tedious. Personally, I felt too much time was spent on inconsequential moments that could easily have been edited out or put together into a much compacter montage.
It is in the second half that the film brings up the multiethnic make-up of the team, yet the film does little with this. In fact, the film’s sole villain, a reporter who questions how the team can work together so well given the “inferior” nature of some of its players, does a complete about-face in no time at all and is soon proclaiming the wonder of the little team that could. That’s nothing. In the film’s final moments, Kano is described in even more glowing terms, and you’re left with one of those false Rocky IV-type moments, in which an entire country is supposedly given a new way of looking at racial harmony and camaraderie. Perhaps it really happened this way, yet if so, there is nothing in the film to hint at the unfulfilled promise of the crowd’s emotional words. War came anyway.
In short, Kano is a somewhat by-the-books sports film that tries hard to be about more than it is. In this endeavor, it only partially succeeds. I admired the way it recreates 1930s Taiwan and takes the audience through the changes that were taking place at that time. I also enjoyed the film’s exploration of Coach Nagase, while still feeling that it was somewhat incomplete, and I enjoyed the drama of the final tournament, for I did not know going into the film whether the team was victorious or not. There is real emotion in the film’s final hour, and I felt myself rooting for this team. Is the film perfect? Not by any stretch of the imagination. In addition to what has previously been mention, I also had trouble with the film’s clunky bookends, which seemed to me entirely superfluous. However, the film has heart and joy. It is inspirational in every way that a sports film should be, and I found myself heartened by the fact that so many of the people portrayed in the film went on to have great careers in baseball or to do admirable things outside of sports. The film may not be Hoosiers, but that’s alright. Kano does enough right to stand on its own and deserve to be seen. (on DVD and Blu-ray in Asia)
*Kano is in Japanese and Min Nan with English subtitles. The subtitles are occasionally problematic.