Big-Budget Movie Looks at Vancouver’s Legendary Japanese Baseball Team

VancouverAsahiTheYou’ve heard of “moneyball,” but what about “brain ball”?

That’s the strategy used by the Vancouver Asahi – the city’s storied baseball team from the 1930s – to dominate the competition.  Instead of relying on home runs, they used bunts and great defence to foil their opponents.

The team and the Japanese-Canadian experience during that era is the subject of the new feature film The Vancouver Asahi, in local theatres now as part of the Vancouver International Film Festival.  The big budget movie recreates the Asahi’s epic 1937 season while offering a glimpse into life in Vancouver’s historic Japantown neighbourhood in the days before World War II.

And there’s a unique twist: The film was made in Japan, offering a Japanese take on Vancouver life and racial politics at the time.

VancouverAsahi_2440The Vancouver Asahi played at current-day Oppenheimer Park as part of the Terminal City baseball league, achieving great success in the 1920s and 1930s. (The team’s actual exploits are captured beautifully in the documentary Sleeping Tigers.) At that time, the Japantown neighbourhood around Powell and Dunlevy Streets was a thriving centre of Japanese culture.

The movie tries to faithfully recreate that historical moment, showing Powell Street lined with Japanese restaurants and businesses and the nearby ballpark packed with Asahi fans. Meanwhile, in lavishly filmed scenes, we see Japanese-Canadians working in the fishing and lumber industries. We even get a glimpse of the kind of intergenerational struggle that faces new immigrants today, as Japanese parents lament that their children are becoming too “Canadian.”

Of course, all of this is set against the backdrop of the impending world conflict that will change everything for Japanese Canadians.  The Japanese have just invaded China, part of a long sequence of events that will ultimately culminate in the bombing of Pearl Harbor in 1942 and the forced exile of Vancouver’s vibrant Japanese community to internment camps during World War II.

vancouverAsahiBut the movie focuses, instead, on a high-water mark for Japanese Canadians.  Life is hard on the gritty streets of Depression-era Vancouver, but the exploits of the Asahi unite Japantown as the team tears up the league.  The underdog story is hard to resist and the period shots of Vancouver’s Eastside (even if they were filmed in a Tokyo movie studio) are a treat.

The Vancouver Asahi plays Sept. 29 at 6:30 p.m., Oct. 4 at 2:30 p.m. and Oct. 9 at 3:30 p.m. at The Centre in Vancouver for Performing Arts and Oct. 10 at 1 p.m. at the Vancouver Playhouse. Tickets are available on the Vancouver International Film Festival website.

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