Baseball’s back in America—as of this writing, anyway—though for much of spring and early summer the Major League season hung in the balance as negotiations between the owners and the players’ union approached a peak of acrimony. Being a baseball fan in 2020 has meant reading more business reporting than box scores; the game itself was a structuring absence as thirty monopolists slow-walked negotiations with the aim of playing as few games—and paying as little of their players’ salaries—as possible. Now the games have begun: television-only spectacles with jerry-built new rules and out-of-sync players, with series after series suspended due to outbreaks, and the entire thing seems surreal and artificial. In this baseball season without the usual romance and dailiness, with closed-door dealings marked by suspicion and cynicism, the film that feels most like baseball in 2020 is Masaki Kobayashi’s I Will Buy You (1956), a baseball movie that’s almost all business and no play—an anti-sports movie, structurally as well as otherwise.
Masaki Kobayashi built his reputation on critiquing systemic corruption and the abuse of individual rights (as Michael Koresky explains in detail in his liner notes for an Eclipse set of the director’s films). He began as a Shochiku apprentice making conventional shomin-geki before The Thick-Walled Room (1953), a raw, despairing portrait of former enlisted men imprisoned for war crimes while their superior officers rebuild American-occupied Japan. The film was such an indictment of the national conscience that it was withheld from release for three years. It prefigured his emergence, at the end of the fifties and into the sixties, as a major figure with the muscular, didactic widescreen epics The Human Condition—a semiautobiographical three-part epic about the conscience of a leftist enlisted soldier in occupied Manchuria—and the revisionist samurai movies Harakiri and Samurai Rebellion, all three of which star Tatsuya Nakadai, the actor who most fiercely embodied Kobayashi’s conscience on-screen. In narratives of Kobayashi’s career, I Will Buy You often gets lost between the political breakthrough of The Thick-Walled Room and the stylistic breakthrough of Black River (1956), with its jazzy score, dynamic compositions, and star-making first collaboration with the twenty-four-year-old Nakadai—Stephen Prince, in his book about the director, A Dream of Rebellion, flatly states that the movielacks “the stature and distinction of its counterparts in the period.” But in its grimy, comprehensive deconstruction of the national ideals embedded within the institution of Japanese baseball, I Will Buy You is unmistakably a formative work by one of cinema’s great moralists.
Kishimoto (Keiji Sada) is a scout for the Toyo Flowers, who are interested in star college player Goro Kurita (Minoru Oki), a left-handed slugging outfielder whose name the uniformed students of the oendan chant in unison. “Passionate young men gather” at baseball games, as another chant goes—and so do jaded older men. Casting his eyes away from the field and into the stands, Kishimoto sees rival scouts from the Handen Lillies and Osaka Socks running the rule over Kurita with equal avidity.
The way to Kurita is through Kyuki (Yunosuke Ito), the benefactor who pays the prospect’s college tuition, molds his game (as Kurita idly swings his bat, Kyuki tells him he’s “opening too early,” though to my eyes a more pressing issue is Kurita’s stiff front leg, which impedes a fluid weight transfer), is entrusted with his professional affairs, and keeps his pockets filled with walking-around money. Identified by the scouts as a “leech,” Kyuki is a figure close to the Dominican busconeswho train, identify, and broker deals on behalf of teen prospects—an arrangement that has facilitated scandals involving the falsification of players’ ages and identities, and the skimming of their signing bonuses. The Flowers, Socks, and Lillies vie for Kurita’s signature, wining and dining and snowing him under with tickets and losing on purpose at mahjong. Kyuki—a bigamist, and, it’s rumored, a spy during the war—plays the scouts off each other expertly, using a chronic medical complaint as a screen to maneuver behind Kishimoto’s back even as Kishimoto considers how best to manipulate him. In this context of intrigue and deceit, the film’s title is ironically reassuring: Kishimoto says it when he promises Kyuki a salary; it’s what passes for a sincere bond of trust formed against the odds.
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