The K-List Extra: Japan Files

Long time no see! Welcome to another chapter of my K…wait, not so fast!

Today we’re playing away from our well known confines, a first review of a non-Korean drama, but one that shares a lot in common to what I’m used to blog about: baseball.

You know where we’re going to: a series about baseball not American nor Korean? There can only be one other place…yes, it’s time for a trip to Japan!

I have fond memories about Japan and its pop culture: I grew up reading mangas and watching all the classic anime on TV when I was a kid, Dragon Ball, One Piece and Naruto the big ones, then I turned to the more niche ones, those you have to watch on stream or find subtitles for, and I still remember some of them as being among the best series I’ve ever watched, animation and non.

Then I found baseball, late on my adolescence as I was around 16 at the time so I was still into Japanese animation, and the only obvious choice was to follow the sport I loved in the country where it’s still revered as a religion: my first approach to the diamond was not via MLB but thanks to the NPB, Nippon Professional Baseball.

After picking a team only for their colors and mascot, as everyone does right?!, I became a Tokyo Yakult Swallows fan: amazing white/green uniforms and Tsubakuro, a penguin trying to land an helmet on his head after flipping it in the air, were more than enough a reason to be a supporter. That wasn’t a bad choice: from 2014 to 2018 they were decent, some Postseasons, a Japan Series win and cult players, from a young Tetsuto Yamada to Yasuhiro “Ryan” Ogawa to the single season HR recordman, the legendary Wladimir “Coco” Balentien. The last couple of years? Don’t ask me…but hey, this season is going great!

That said, as I grew up, went to university out of my hometown and all, I abandoned the animation world always keeping my tie to Japan through baseball, while my interests in terms of series went to the US and lately to Korea. I knew of the existence of J-Dramas, Japanese non-animated series, but they are considered third rate productions in the Asian drama market after Korean and Chinese ones, so I had my doubts.

Still, the Land of the Rising Sun called me back. As I was looking for another K-Drama to watch I saw something familiar among the newest releases: a girl and a man, holding a ball and a baseball bat respectively, hiraganas and the classic long title Japanese productions are known for.

Could I resist the temptation? Absolutely not!

Today I’ll briefly review my first ever J-Drama, a 2021 TV Tokyo series called Hachigatsu wa Yoru no Batting Center de, translated as “August, in the batting center at night”.

With 9 eps, each running around 20 minutes, this is more a mini-series than a drama, so it’s an easy binge for baseball fans and a nice, effortless series for everyone else.

The story is as straightforward as they come, as the same structure repeats at every episode: a young girl, Mai Natsuha, and a retired professional baseball player, Tomohiro Ito, run a batting center, a classic in Japan and a good way to relieve stress. Thanks to the ability of the latter in understanding a person’s worries and problems by looking at her batting stance and motion, they help a woman to solve her issues in each of the nine episodes, giving precious advice by means of baseball.

This may seem weird and nonsensical, and it is to a degree: Ito is a baseball guru, one that lives by the motto “Life is baseball”, I agree on that, and he speaks through that only.

What makes everything even stranger, and better, is how he deals with each woman’s problems: as he gets to know a woman’s troubles, he resolves them using “baseball theory”, not only on paper though. The woman, Mai and the man himself find themselves into his mind, nothing more than a baseball field where the game of baseball is used as a way to preach common sense and life lessons.

It’s such a funny and impactful transition: from being casually dressed in the batting center, Mai, Tomohiro and their “client” are teleported into the diamond in a full uniform, with the old man being kantoku, the coach, Mai his assistent and the woman either on the bench or even playing, having to pitch from the mound or bat against her own friends/foes. That makes for some hilarious scenes: imagine finding yourself into a baseball game, fans and all, standing on the mound without knowing how you got there…confusing to say the least!

But that doesn’t stop there: as you know, baseball in Japan is still the thing, the national sport with few rivals, sumo and martial arts mostly. Ito, as a good coach does, can’t just rely on his own words and teachings to make someone understand life through bat and ball lenses, he needs someone to show what he means in a practical manner, in this case by playing baseball the right way.

And who better than some of the greatest players in Japanese baseball history?! Each episode has a former or active player making a cameo, putting on a uniform and showing how it’s done, whether it comes down to be fearless and pitch into a hitter, make the right choices at the plate or have an optimal mindset when approaching a challenge.

For a baseball fan, either one that knows much or not at all Japan and the NPB, these small appearances are the cherry atop the cake: there’s nothing better than seeing Boston Red Sox legend Koji Uehara come into the game with an epic BGM and a fitting slow motion, nor there is a better way to explain effort than seeing Blue Jays folklore myth Munenori Kawasaki picking and grinning at shortstop.

These well known stars of the game are not just there to please baseball fans, and this is where the beauty of this drama lies: while they talk and act through baseball, in a terminology that maybe not all people know, one made of outs innings balls and strikes, what they want to tell is translated to each ep’s woman by Ito, yet again acting as the perfect kantoku.

A catcher relying on his pitcher in a big spot is not different from a wife trusting her husband as he tries a new endeavor; a batter swinging out of his shoes against a good opponent even if he misses is a lesson on trying without the terror of failure; a pitcher acknowledging that his time on the mound may be over finds himself in the same situation as someone who knows he doesn’t belong on his job anymore, due to age and young talent coming up, so that he has to accept another position and responsibilites.

All these small life lessons, chocolate box advices and common sense pills are much sweeter when shown through action, and the on-field low paced dances accompaning baseball are the picture perfect fit to say things we all know as true while making them much more immediate and enjoyable, a dialogue through pitching deliveries and batting stances.

There’s also a simple, amazing story, a subplot that becomes the main plot in the final episode, about Mai, a 17 y.o. girl that played and still adores baseball but has abandoned it at her peak due to an accident within her team: all the other women Ito helps are an occasion for her to rekindle with the game she loves, make amends with the people she hurt and go back where she belongs, a slow walk to the mound that is beautifully encapsuled in the ED, a quality example of all the things I miss about J-pop.

While the acting is nothing to boast about, good but far away from the K-Drama average, technical aspects are high quality all over the series: direction is on top of its game, particularly on scenes at the ballpark, great photography and scenarios, OSTs are gold standard both in musics and video, bountiful resources for such a small entity, both in eps and runtime.

In such simple construction, with tones that are never too dramatic just like a baseball game in early April, Hachigatsu is an emotional ode to life, baseball and all their connections, everything if you believe in Ito’s mantra.

Whether you like baseball or not I can’t help but to recommend this gem: it’s a short ride but a meaningful one, leaving you with what you already knew, sure, but better, explained in such a way that it doesn’t only make sense, it’s almost like it was always there to begin with.

For baseball fans, this is something you can’t miss: baseball really it’s not that dissimilar from life, the ups and downs on 9 innings as the good and bad moments we go through our daily routines, and seeing the game we love as a way to tell something so elementar yet so crucial is a show of all the devotion Japan has for baseball, a belief that I envy from my innermost self. Plus, it doesn’t get much better than seeing Koji back on the mound.

You’re right, Ito. Life is baseball!

Italian baseball stathead. I’ll write about MLB, Nippon Professional Baseball and Korean dramas/shows. A lot of graphs, Astros related content and references.