Written by Catherine Ju-yu Cheng.
Image credit: 2016 JAPAN 0615 by Sunline Liu/Flickr, license CC BY-NC-ND 2.0
The critically acclaimed 2014 Taiwanese film Kano, which was produced by Wei Te-Sheng and Jimmy Huang, and directed by Umin Boya, was based on the true story of the meteoric rise of a Japanese colonial-era (1895-1945) Taiwanese baseball team. Its particular focus was the exploits of a group of Taiwanese players who participated in a Japanese tournament as part of a programme for promoting colonial unity, yet who were able to subvert their roles as the colonial administration’s pawns, and become heroes whose appeal transcended ethnic divisions. Producing in the backdrop of fervent debates on the legacies of Japanese rule, the film presents a nuanced and at times ambivalent take on the impact of Taiwan’s colonial experience in the reconstruction of its national identity. It has even been appraised as alternatively post-national in its motivation, and a Taiwanese national allegory.
The film was met with some disapproval in Taiwan and China, with some critics pointing out that it promotes a colonial mentality. A particular criticism is that it uncritically echoes the colonial administration’s claim that baseball was promoted to foster a form of inter-ethnic harmony, and that it promotes a rosy view of Japanese colonial modernity that brushes over that era’s festering social injustices and ethnic divisions. However, in my opinion, such a position stems from a misapprehension of what the movie attempts to achieve. Essentially, Kano is not focused on the impetuses and impacts of colonial-era policy – rather, it is in many ways about baseball. It is particularly concerned about recasting the origin myth of baseball’s rise to the status of Taiwan’s national sport, and revealing how it came to assume a unique role in Taiwan for negotiating intersections between the local and the global, nationalism and cosmpolitanism.
Kano follows a multi-ethnic group of young players who overcame tremendous odds to finish runners up in the prestigious Japanese High School Baseball Championship. In terms of the movie’s historical context, this occurred in 1931, a year after the bloody Wushe rebellion involving the Seediq people (which was the subject of Wei’s 2011 historical drama Warriors of the Rainbow: Seediq Bale), and roughly 10 years after Taiwan’s admission to the competition -ostensibly to reduce inter-ethnic tensions and strengthen colonial unity. The players in the team were, in this sense, unwitting pawns in a scheme for consolidating colonial rule during a period marked by rising Japanese fascism and heightened inter-ethnic tensions. They were, however, able to subvert this role – in part by using baseball as a platform for broadcasting their talent, spirit, and extraordinary resilience.
The film in this sense shows how the journey to mastering baseball involved not only physical training, but also engaged the players in a process of psychological, social and even spiritual transformation. We see that as the players undertook a rigorous regime of training, their relationship with baseball, and with each other, gradually transformed in unexpected ways. Differences in personality, family background and ethnicity began to incrementally pale from significance. And for some, this transformation extended to their relationship with the world around them, as they found, during times of intense absorption, that the boundaries between mind and matter appeared to dissipate. For instance, the team’s pitcher, Wu Ming-chieh, at times felt at one with the ball. But more significantly, there were aspects of this experience that were akin to totemism – which has a special connection with aboriginal culture in particular. As a part of their training regime, the team’s Japanese coach, Hyotaro Kondo, coaxed his young charges to envision themselves as eagles. This journey in which baseball served as an entry point into a new horizon and way of being appeared to eventually infect not only the players, but also those that observed them. Not only did the players’ mastery of the game earn them, and the colony of Taiwan more broadly, greater respect and pride – for brief moments, their artistry helped them establish deeper connections with the audience that melted away the latter’s prejudices and ethnocentrisms.
Kano, on these grounds, has some of the qualities of a Taiwanese national allegory. Yet at the same time it shows something deeper. On one level, it revealed how competitive baseball had become a site of both resisting a colonial mentality, and fostering the formation of a nascent nationalism. However it also revealed how absorption in the game could became a catalyst for subverting and eventually transcending the politics of identity.
On both these fronts, the connection with baseball is particularly pertinent. Baseball unarguably holds the mantle of Taiwan’s national sport. But just as it was a tool of Japanese colonialism, it could equally be considered a symbol, and perhaps even an instrument, of the modern American project of globalization in the region. It is notable, for instance, that a strong interest in baseball is shared among each of America’s closest and most important allies in East Asian. Looked at this way, baseball’s shifting role in and beyond Taiwan has parallels with the changing role of cricket in former British colonies, in which the sport transformed from a tool for empire maintenance and colonial unity, to a site of resistance and constructing national pride, before developing its more modern role as a locus for cosmopolitan intersections. This process is arguably a macrocosm of that which is depicted in Kano.
In this sense, in addressing intersections between baseball and Taiwanese-ness, Kano is as much a reflection of modern Taiwan’s rapidly transforming identity as it is a reconstruction of the origin myth of Taiwanese nationalism. Taiwan’s defeat of Japan, which earned it a silver medal in the 1992 Olympics, was a cause of national celebration. And the Kano team’s success pales in significance to the remarkable and oft-celebrated exploits of Taiwanese youth teams in the U.S. based Little League World Series. Overseas-based Taiwanese stars, such as Kuo Tai-yuan, and Wang Chien-ming, are the subject of widespread adulation and intense national pride. Yet the opposite is also true – Taiwan’s own domestic league has been steadily internationalising, and growing celebration of this diversity mirrors the island’s growing acceptance of its increasing cosmolopolitanism, as well as the acceleration of Taiwan’s regional integration. Kano, in this sense, perhaps offers a template for envisioning baseball’s role in negotiating Taiwan’s unique identity and the growing ubiquity of cosmopolitan globalism.
Catherine Ju-yu Cheng (firstname.lastname@example.org) is an Associate Professor in the Department of Foreign Languages and Literature at Feng Chia University. Her main areas of research are in postmodern novels, science fiction, contemporary European philosophy, and Buddhist philosophy.