REVIEW: Mr Baseball (1992)

An American baseball player (Tom Selleck) is unwillingly traded during Spring training to a Japanese team. Chafing against an unfamiliar culture and fighting with his new coach (Ken Takakura), his struggles threaten both his new team’s chances as well as his own career.

If there is one thing that can be said for Mr Baseball, a 1992 comedy directed by Australia’s Fred Schepisi, it is that it depicts late 20th century Japan with surprising accuracy. Indeed the film is purported to still be used in educating real-life foreign players entering the Nippon Professional League on what to expect in terms of cultural differences. I wouldn’t be surprised if it was. For viewers unfamiliar with Japanese etiquette and culture, this is a moderately amusing ‘fish out of water’ comedy. For those who know where and how to bow, or where to best place one’s chopsticks, it is practically a horror movie.

Truth be told, Mr Baseball is a fairly rough watch. Script revisions seem to have been an issue, at least they were according to Schepisi – who faced similar issues when he helmed Fierce Creatures in 1997. To be honest the two films feel roughly comparable: solid direction and talented players, but the narrative framework simply fails to hold up. Neither film seems as enjoyable as they should be, and that’s despite the best efforts of anyone not involved in writing them.

The chief struggle with Mr Baseball is that, while it goes to admirable lengths in making Selleck’s character Jack Elliot the ultimate ‘ugly American’, it never properly resolves his behaviour in a satisfactory manner. His antics include disrespecting his teammates, bathing before washing, stabbing chopsticks into his bowl of rice, and literally punching his interpreter in the face, and yet while he may emerge from his experiences rather apologetic he fails to really experience any consequences. Indeed the film only drags Elliot to some kind of reckoning by dragging his antagonistic coach (played by the always-solid Ken Takakura) to apologise in return. Other elements, notably Elliot’s wooing of his coach’s daughter (Aya Takanashi), feel more like wish fulfilment that a clash of cultures.

It is unfortunate, because Selleck is – as always – a very charming and naturally amusing performer. Takakura has been cast right in his bottled-up, straight-faced comfort zone. Dennis Haysbert gives a strong supporting turn as a fellow American player exiled to Japan. Takanashi does her best, but she has been tasked with selling the audience a deeply unconvincing romance; there is a difference of eight inches and 18 years between them for one thing.

Honestly it all feels like half of a movie. The cultural contrasts between Japan and America feel accurate in content, but the prevailing pro-American tone puts a patronising glaze over the entire piece. Jerry Goldsmith’s musical score feels overtly stereotypical and Orientalist. It is ultimately the worst kind of film. Were it simply mediocre it could be easily dismissed, but the kernel of quality at its centre suggests a far more nuanced and fascinating work buried within. This is a lost opportunity.

Australian label Via Vision Entertainment has released Mr Baseball onto bluray this week. Check their website or your local video retailer for more information.

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