Sunday, February 16, 2020

Aim for the Best: Sports in Japanese Cinema

In Anticipation of the 2020 Summer Games in Tokyo, Japan Society Presents
a Film Series Contextualizing the Role of Sports in Modern Japan, Including Two International Premieres

April 10—25, 2020

The Chrysanthemum and the Guillotine © 2018 “The Chrysanthemum and the Guillotine” Project

New York, NY (February 11, 2020) – Like cinema, sports have been integral to the development of modern Japan since the late 19th century when the country opened its borders to the West. Intersecting these two major cultural forces is the multifaceted and ubiquitous sports film, a fluid genre that offers fascinating insight into issues related to Japanese national identity, gender roles and the clash between tradition and modernity. Organized in anticipation of the Tokyo 2020 Summer Games, Aim for the Best: Sports in Japanese Cinema celebrates the Japanese sports film in its myriad iterations—covering a wide range of athletic disciplines and filmmaking styles, from wartime Japan to the present—including classics, documentaries, anime and commercial crowd-pleasers. 

The series opens April 10th with a 35mm screening of Masayuki Suo’s award-winning sports comedy Sumo Do, Sumo Don’t, about a mismatched group of outcasts brought together to participate in a dysfunctional college sumo club, followed by a post-screening Sumo Party with chankonabe (a hearty stew commonly eaten by sumo wrestlers), drinks, and a sumo demonstration. One of the uniquely Japanese sports disciplines with premodern origins highlighted in the series, sumo wrestling is also central to The Chrysanthemum and the Guillotine, a contemporary period epic by the prolific auteur Takahisa Zeze that focuses on the little-known history of women’s participation in the sport. Other titles involving Japan’s domestic sports include Akira Kurosawa’s debut feature Sanshiro Sugata, a judo film made while the country was still at war, and Kenji Misumi’s The Sword, a postwar classic about kendo starring Raizo Ichikawa adapted from a story by the infamous author Yukio Mishima, both screening on imported 35mm prints.

Other highlights include Koshien: Japan’s Field of DreamsEma Ryan Yamazaki’s perceptive and richly dramatic documentary about Japan’s wildly popular high school baseball tournament Koshien, which serves as a microcosm for Japanese society as a whole—followed by a Q&A with Yamazaki. Koshien is also the subject of the rarest film in the series, which is the 1968 documentary Youth: The 50th National High School Baseball Tournament by legendary director Kon Ichikawa. Long unavailable and relegated to mythical status among Ichikawa completists, the film screens for the first time outside of Japan on April 25th as the final event of the series.  Another recently unearthed discovery is Tokyo Paralympics: Festival of Love and Glory, a fascinating document of the 1964 Paralympic Games that was newly restored this past year, making its International Premiere.

The series is rounded out by the recently remastered tennis anime feature Aim for the Best!, adapted from a popular manga and anime series inspired by women’s athletics; biting satires about baseball scouting and capitalism in sports—Masaki Kobayashi’s I Will Buy You—and the manufacturing of sports stars through advertising—Seijun Suzuki’s characteristically eccentric golf film A Tale of Sorrow and Sadness; the synchronized swimming audience favorite Waterboys from hitmaker Shinobu Yaguchi; and two free events: a talk by Dr. Robin Kietlinski contextualizing the history of modern sports in Japan through the lens of gender and social issues, and a free screening and talk presentation of the pilot episode of the NHK “taiga drama” Idaten, about the history of Japan’s involvement in international sports and the Olympics.

“With the Summer Games in Tokyo on the horizon, this is a perfect opportunity to consider the longstanding tradition of putting Japanese sports on the big screen,” says K. F. Watanabe, series curator and Deputy Director of Film at Japan Society. “From sumo to baseball, the intersection of sports with Japanese cinema offers rich insight into some of the most salient issues in Japan’s modern history, including how sports have served to define its social and political values as a compromise between tradition and globalizing change.”

Tickets: $14/$11 seniors, students and persons with disabilities/$10 Japan Society members. Screening of Sumo Do, Sumo Don’t + Sumo Party: $18/$15/$14. 3-Film Pass: $2 off each ticket when you purchase three films in the same transaction. All-Access Pass: $77 ($7 per ticket for all 11 films in the series.) Purchase tickets online at, in person at Japan Society, or by calling the box office at 212-715-1258.

 All films in Japanese with English subtitles.

Fri., Apr. 10 at 7 pm
Dir. Masayuki Suo, 1992, 105 min., 35mm
*Followed by a Sumo Party
Before receiving global acclaim for the smashing success of Shall We Dance? (1996), director Masayuki Suo had another major hit with this light-hearted comedy about a ragtag group of misfits who eventually find their self-worth by resurrecting a nearly defunct university sumo club. Gently poking fun at the outmoded traditions of Japan’s ancient sport while also celebrating its inherent values, Suo’s modern and comedic take on sumo transcends national specificity in a way that could inspire anyone to strap on a mawashi belt and step into the ring. A critical and commercial favorite, the film swept the 16th Japan Academy Prize in almost every major category.

Sat., Apr. 11 at 2 pm
Dir. Akira Kurosawa, 1943, 79 min., 35mm
Made under the watchful eye of the Japanese wartime government, Akira Kurosawa’s first film as a director is an adaptation of a popular novel about the legitimization of judo, based on the life of one of its earliest disciples, Shiro Saigo, and his training with the martial art’s founder Kano Jigoro. Despite the film’s required conformity to imperial national policy, Kurosawa’s authorial trademarks—including his recurring interest in the master-disciple dynamic, his influence from Western-style filmmaking and his masterful command of film technique—are clearly evident, resulting in a fascinating debut that offers a blueprint for understanding one of cinema’s greatest filmmakers.

Sat., Apr. 11 at 4 pm
Dir. Masaki Kobayashi, 1956, 111 min., 35mm
Before taking on the Japanese feudal system in anti-establishment jidaigeki masterpieces such as Harakiri (1962), director Masaki Kobayashi turned his attention to the world of professional sports with this scathing indictment of the baseball industry and postwar capitalist greed. Battling against rival teams, a talent scout for the major league Toyo Flowers goes all out to sign a star college baseball player—a cutthroat process involving bribery, deception and back room deals—at the risk of losing his humanity. Mostly ignoring the game of baseball in itself, Kobayashi’s atypical, noir-tinged sports film takes its action off the field to remind us that everybody has a price.

Sat., Apr. 11 at 7 pm
Dir. Kenji Misumi, 1964, 94 min., 35mm
One of the rare non-jidaigeki (period drama) films directed by Kenji Misumi—best known for his contributions to the Lone Wolf and Cub and Zatoichi swordplay film series—The Sword nevertheless evokes the bushido spirit through the story of an exceptionally talented kendo club captain whose ascetic devotion to the centuries-old practice draws the ire of his less-disciplined assistant. Adapted from a short story by Yukio Mishima and released the same year Japan hosted their first Olympics, The Sword positions the battle over kendo supremacy as an ideological conflict between feudal traditionalism and postwar modernity in determining the future of Japan. A psychologically tense drama beautifully rendered with widescreen black-and-white cinematography.

Wed., Apr. 15 at 7 pm
Dir. Shinobu Yaguchi, 2001, 91 min., DCP 
Initially lured by the prospect of getting close to a beautiful new coach, five awkward students at an all-boys high school sign up for a synchronized swimming club despite having little athletic ability and even less coordination, finding some help from an eccentric dolphin trainer along the way. Known for hit commercial fish-out-of-water comedies, Swing Girls (2004) director Shinobu Yaguchi landed his first major success with this teen comedy, a heartwarming crowd-pleaser that maximizes the pleasures of the sports film genre—including unconventional training sequences and a show-stopping finale—while providing playful commentary on masculinity and traditional gender roles. 

Sat., Apr. 18 at 1 pm
Free Talk Event
Dr. Robin Kietlinski, Associate Professor of History at CUNY-LaGuardia Community College and author of Japanese Women and Sport: Beyond Baseball and Sumo (Bloomsbury Academic Press, 2012), discusses the entry of Japanese women into the domestic and international sporting arenas, focusing on some of the barriers they have broken in the past century of competition. In conjunction with Japan Society's sports film series, this talk will shed light on the ways sports offer an interesting (and often under-explored) lens into historical changes within Japanese society. By looking at the situation of Japanese sportswomen within a broader international context of women's competitive sports, this talk considers how participation in sports has challenged and shaped traditional stereotypes of womanhood over the past century in Japan. 

Sat., Apr. 18 at 3 pm
Dir. Takahisa Zeze, 2018, 189 min., DCP
Amid the sociopolitical turmoil following the 1923 Great Kanto Earthquake, a group of radical male anarchists who call themselves the Guillotine Society cross paths with an itinerant female sumo troupe and form a bond strengthened by their shared resistance to rising militarism and racist vigilante nationalists targeting socialists and Koreans. Chronicling a country caught between flowering liberal democracy and a reactionary shift towards fascism, Takahisa Zeze’s exhilarating and sprawling epic paints a compelling portrait of the late Taisho era using historical incidents and figures while highlighting the little-known story of Japanese women’s sumo—a sport that continues to relegate women’s participation to non-professional circuits. 

Sat., Apr. 18 at 7 pm
Dir. Osamu Dezaki, 1979, 88 min., DCP
Following the Tokyo 1964 Summer Olympics and the domestic excitement surrounding Japanese athletes, the sports manga and anime genre (supokon) became popular in Japan in the late 1960s and ’70s, including several shojo (youth female-oriented) series. Among the most iconic and influential of these is Aim for the Best!, created by Sumika Yamamoto, about an insecure high school girl who strives to become a professional tennis player with the guidance of a mysterious coach and the rivalry of an older teammate. Adapted by the pioneering anime director Osamu Dezaki, the subsequent theatrical film features his innovative and psychedelic visual style that pushed animation in bold new directions, presented in a brand new digital remaster.

Tues., Apr. 21 at 7 pm
Dir. Seijun Suzuki, 1977, 93 min., 35mm
Fired from Nikkatsu studio for making “incomprehensible” films, iconoclastic filmmaker Seijun Suzuki returned to the director’s chair after a decade of exile working in television with this characteristically bizarre critique of advertising and celebrity culture based on a story by sports manga legend Ikki Kajiwara (Ashita no Joe). In need of a new cover girl to boost advertising sales, the top brass of a large sports magazine manufacture the latest Japanese sports star: an amateur golfer who looks good in a bikini. When the golfer’s fame attracts the unwanted attention of a crazed housewife stalker, however, she finds herself terrorized by a blackmail scheme and Suzuki makes a sharp turn into surreal psychological thriller territory. 

Fri., Apr. 24 at 7 pm
Dir. Ema Ryan Yamazaki, 2019, 94 min., DCP
*Followed by a Q&A with director Ema Ryan Yamazaki 
Every summer in Japan, baseball fans are swept up in the thrill of Koshien, the wildly popular national high school baseball championship named after Osaka’s hallowed Koshien Stadium. On the historic 100th anniversary of the single elimination tournament, documentary filmmaker Ema Ryan Yamazaki follows the coaches and players of two promising teams as they undergo rigorous training—a process that reveals a uniquely Japanese and exceptionally martial approach to the Western sport that emphasizes self-sacrifice and spiritual conditioning. Yamazaki’s perceptive film offers Japanese baseball as a microcosm of a nation that continues to balance respect for tradition with the adoption of progressive change.

Sat., Apr. 25 at 2 pm
Dir. Tsuyoshi Inoue, 2019, 58 min., DCP
*Free screening introduced by producers Mio Ietomi and Kei Kurube, followed by a talk presentation
Every year, NHK (Japan’s public broadcaster) produces a yearlong historical drama series known as their “taiga drama.” Last year’s taiga drama Idaten, presented in celebration of the 55th anniversary of the 1964 Summer Olympics and in anticipation of the 2020 edition, focused on the history of Japanese sports and Japan’s participation in the Olympics throughout the 20th century—only the second taiga drama to ever involve postwar Japanese history. In this special free screening and talk event, the pilot episode of Idaten screens for the first time with English subtitles, followed by a talk presentation about the project and its contexts by two of the show’s key producers.

Sat., Apr. 25 at 4:30 pm
Dir. Kimio Watanabe, 1965, 63 min., DCP
*International Premiere 
*Introduced by Dr. Dennis Frost, Associate Professor of East Asian Social Sciences at Kalamazoo College
This summer, Tokyo will be the first city to host the Paralympic Games on two separate occasions. This frank and intimate documentary—recently rediscovered and restored after being forgotten in storage for decades—offers a fascinating glimpse of the first occasion in 1964, the 2nd official Paralympics, by following the journey of several pioneering Japanese athletes whose participation (along with that of over 300 other athletes from 20 countries) helped raise disability awareness and change prevailing stigmas in their home countries. An important addendum to Kon Ichikawa’s iconic Tokyo Olympiad (1965), this long-forgotten and vital documentary screens outside of Japan for the first time.

Sat., Apr. 25 at 7 pm
Dir. Kon Ichikawa, 1968, 96 min., DCP
*International Premiere 
Among the hardest-to-see films in Kon Ichikawa’s oeuvre, this 1968 documentary finds the legendary 
director approach the subject of Japanese high school baseball with the same lyricism and visual splendor as he did with the 1964 Summer Games in Tokyo Olympiad (1965). On the 50th anniversary of the Koshien games, Ichikawa captures the uniquely rigorous training—in snow, dirt and schoolyard lots—of the young athletes preparing for the all-important tournament, interspersed with historical footage that contextualizes Japan’s long love affair with student baseball. A thrilling portrait of youth in the economic boom of the postwar period, Ichikawa’s rare film encapsulates an entire generation through sports.


Fri., Mar. 13 at 7 pm
Dir. Naoto Takenaka, 1991, 107 min., 35mm
In this wry comedy adapted from the semi-autobiographical work of legendary cartoonist Yoshiharu Tsuge, a hapless manga artist disillusioned with drawing comics turns his attention to selling rocks that he finds in a nearby river—a hopeless endeavor that only further estranges him from his poverty-stricken family. An auspicious directorial debut by popular Japanese actor and comedian Naoto TakenakaNowhere Man won the FIPRESCI Prize at the 48th Venice Film Festival. This rare 35mm screening is co-presented with New York Review Comics in celebration of their brand-new publication of The Man Without Talent, the first full-length work by Tsuge translated into English.

Tickets: $14/$11 seniors, students & persons with disabilities/$5 Japan Society members

Sat., Mar. 21 at 3, 5 & 7 pm
Dir. Atsushi Wada, 2004-2019, 73 min., DCP
Atsushi Wada (b. 1980, Hyogo Prefecture) is an award-winning Japanese animator whose distinctive hand-drawn style emphasizes a minimalist aesthetic and evocative use of negative space. His whimsical and surrealist works, often involving animals and soft humans with blank expressions, utilize sudden shifts in perspective, sound effects and idiosyncratic gestures to express the comic absurdity and poetry of everyday life. This retrospective screening program features nine animated short films and various commissioned projects by Wada, including The Great Rabbit, recipient of a Silver Bear short film jury award at the 62nd Berlin International Film Festival.

Tickets: $14/$11 seniors, students & persons with disabilities/$10 Japan Society members

Japan Society Film's programs are generously supported by the Lila Wallace-Reader's Digest Endowment Fund and Gaia Holistic Health Foundation/Dr. Kazuko Tatsumura-Hillyer. Additional season support is provided by The Globus Family, Masu Hiroshi Masuyama, Geoff and Fumi Matters, Laurel Gonsalves, David Toberisky, Akiko Koide and Shohei Koide, Dr. Tatsuji Namba, George Gallagher, David S. Howe, and Hiroshi Tsuyuki and Yasuko Tsuyuki.

Japan Society Film offers a diverse selection of Japanese films, from classics to contemporary independent productions. Its aim is to entertain, educate and support activities in the Society's arts and culture programs. For more, visit

About Japan Society
Founded in 1907, Japan Society in New York City presents sophisticated, topical and accessible experiences of Japanese art and culture, and facilitates the exchange of ideas, knowledge and innovation between the U.S. and Japan. More than 200 events annually encompass world-class exhibitions, dynamic classical and cutting-edge contemporary performing arts, film premieres and retrospectives, workshops and demonstrations, tastings, family activities, language classes, and a range of high-profile talks and expert panels that present open, critical dialogue on issues of vital importance to the U.S., Japan and East Asia. Japan Society is located at 333 East 47th Street between First and Second avenues (accessible by the 4/5/6 and 7 subway at Grand Central or the E and M subway at Lexington Avenue).

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