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Battlefield Baseball

Subversive Cinema // Unrated // May 3, 2005
List Price: $21.69 [Buy now and save at Amazon]

Review by Bill Gibron | posted April 15, 2005 | E-mail the Author
Sometimes, a movie comes along that surpasses your expectations. From the title and the description, you expect one thing (a feel good comedy, a spine-tingling exercise in horror). But when the film finally finishes messing with your anticipation and settles in to show you what it REALLY has, the experience is incredibly shocking and 'oh so' satisfying. There are lots examples in the world of independent cinema, where the unknown quantity aspects of the unheralded artist make it hard to believe all the hype. Still, when one of those amazing auteurs steps up and delivers the unanticipated, it makes all those moments in front of the movie screen, mindlessly starring at stereotypical drivel seem well worth the time waste.

Battlefield Baseball is such a film. From the box cover and the ad copy, you'd think you were getting a cunning horror farce. Zombies and high schoolers engaged in a battle royale diamond throw down, complete with grue and gross out gags. The publicity pics show a rag tag group of the living dead, bodies mutated like badly drawn Cenobites, posing with a certain Deadite air about them. There are other indications that this will indeed be a big time bloodletting: images of bodies riddled with bats, a field strewn with entrails and heads. Well guess what? Battlefield Baseball does have such a facet to its filmmaking. The percentage can be placed at about 10%. In reality, this is a strangely satisfying mix of the macabre, the daffy and the heartfelt. While it may look like a scary sports movie, it is so very much more than that.

The DVD:
Poor Seido High School. Their baseball team and coach long for a trip to the Championships, but there is one nasty obstacle in their way – the horrible, half-human team of corrupt corpses that play for rival Gedo High School (named after a Japanese slang term for a trash or gutter fish). Seido (which means "sincerity") does not stand a chance against these peculiar players, who use a gonzo-style full out fighting method of play to disembowel, dismember and decapitate their opponents. After the entire team is killed (except for Megane, a four eyed foul up who is too inept to take the field) Seido's principal turns to a troubled teen – an angry outsider named Jubeh - to hopefully settle the score. Jubeh is possessed with powerful pitching skills equal to Gedo's combating force, but he is apprehensive to use them. It will take a revelation and a true life or death standoff to get this supernaturally powerful player back into the stadium for a little Battlefield Baseball.

Battlefield Baseball is a great movie. It defies description as it wages war with cinematic logic. Like The Story of Rikki-O married to Shaolin Soccer, with just a touch of Army of Darkness' cheek thrown in for good measure, this remarkably fun film is the product of a rather revered pairing. First time director Yudai Yamaguchi teams up with collaborator Ryuhei Kitamura (both wrote the infamous Asian horror cult film Versus, with Kitamura helming the camera) to craft what has to be one of the most original love letters to America's - and Japan's – favorite national pastime. Except here, instead of Natural style exploding spotlights, we get detonating outfielders. As close to a Tex Avery cartoon come to life as you are likely to see on the big screen, this is the Troma film Lloyd Kaufman never made, a ridiculous, resplendent reminder that movies can be funny, frightening and freakish all at the same time. It even has heart. Luckily, Battlefield Baseball keeps the sentiment square on the subversive side throughout this entire engaging enterprise.

Based on a manga (long form Japanese comics or graphic novels) by Man-Gataro famous in his homeland for a surreal, avant-garde style, this is really a story of how sports can define and confirm character. At the heart of all the goofiness, the over the top action and occasional lapses in reason, there is a strong statement about using your talent to better everyone around you. Gedo is viewed as misfits, forced to cheat and kill in order to advance their team. Seido is the "sincere" school, who wants to use pure sports skill and talent to win. Naturally, we need a hero possessed with a little of both – read: good and bad magic – to tightrope walk between the tenets. In Jubeh (played with a perfect perfunctory pout by Japanese superstar Tak Sakaguchi) we get such a champion, a man-child unable to resolve his deadly abilities with the destruction they produce. Instead, he has hidden away his "super tornado" pitch to protect himself and those around him.

Naturally, this kind of shoe-gazing self-indulgence would be poison in a standard sports film. But then again, Battlefield Baseball is not your typical trip to the ballpark. More humor than horror, with a keen sense of its own outrageousness, this is eye and mind candy at its most enjoyable. While the theme of inner truth is tantamount to the formulaic finale, the vast majority of this film dances to its own deranged and delighted drummer. Director Yudai Yamaguchi is a master of the homage, picking his references with manic precision. There are sequences straight out of The Matrix and other wire-fu epics, as well as nods to Sam Raimi, George Romero (those weird blue faced fiends), the entire Class of Nuke 'Em High/ Surf Nazis Must Die ideal (including a particularly adept butt kicking old hag) and almost every bit of Warners animated wackiness. The combination coalesces into a hilarious, heady brew; something easily consumed and indulged in without difficulty. Yamaguchi makes the most of his limited means (this was a low budget production with a ridiculously short 30 day schedule) relying on imagination and invention to sell his scenarios.

And it all works wonderfully. Part of the enchantment of Battlefield Baseball is the combination of familiarity and freshness, and how it makes this movie both accessible and arcane at the same time. It's like nothing we've ever seen before fashioned out of very recognizable attributes. The comedy relies on ideas both slapstick and subtle, with sporadic bits paying off immediately while others take the entire narrative to finally fulfill their promise. The action is of the heavily edited, tightly choreographed variety, with many of the cinematic marital arts moves that make audiences drop their jaw in joy. There is not really a great deal of baseball to be found here (except for an opening montage of bats and balls) but the creative use of the sport and its equipment by the evildoers does provide a few cool moments. And, unlike other Asian fare, where the acting can be mannered and very forced, the cartoon quality of the story seems to wipe away any taint of artifice. Indeed, Tak Sakaguchi's performance is more Method than demonstrative, and everyone else in the cast manages the difficult task of being buffoonish, and believable, at the same time.

There may be those who wonder why the film begins in such a scattershot fashion (we open on a flashback – or premonition) only to be taken through a series of scenes that don't seem to connect. And then, when Jubeh breaks into a sappy, yet sensational song (yep, Battlefield Baseball is ALMOST a musical), you may think the movie will never fully recover - or heck, DISCOVER - its filmic footing. But Yamaguchi's triumph is getting all these diverse elements to blend together, allowing the more confusing aspects of the storyline to tie back around and reshape the story. By the end, when several secrets are revealed - including the narrator's stunning identity - we feel a true sense of closure and completeness. Battlefield Baseball is not really trying to tell a story of accomplishment over adversity, or how one game can change the lives of all involved. This is not a Rocky film, where everything hinges on the final outcome of the competition. No, what this movie really wants to do is celebrate games in all their glorious pieces – the good, the bad, the festive and the scandalous. It wants to remind us of why we enjoy sports so much, why they become so interconnected with our lives and our loves.

But at its core, this is really just a crazy, chaotic goof, a good time film filled with untamed wackiness. All messages and meaning aside, Yamaguchi just wants to thrill and chill you, get you laughing and loving every minute of his movie. And he succeeds. In the realm of extraordinary entertainment, this is a motion picture that succeeds on all levels. It's witty and weird, mischievous and memorable. It completely understands the fun it is forming - so much so that the minute it ends, you find yourself wanting to hit the start button, experiencing the exaggerated excitement all over again. Though it's not in the same league as Stephen Chow and his Kung Fu hustling, this is still one of the best, most enjoyable crackpot experiences to come down the pipe in a long time. You won't soon forget the epic athletic confrontations between Seido and Gedo, or the peculiar players on each team. Battlefield Baseball is sublimely surreal. This is a great film.

The Video:
Subversive Cinema, a relative newcomer to the DVD market, does a dynamite job on the tech specs of this release. Battlefield Baseball is presented in a colorful, pristine 1.85:1 anamorphic widescreen image that captures many of the subtle shading touches Yamaguchi used while making the film. The past scenes naturally have a sly sepia tone, while Gedo's realm is as sickly green as the zombie's skin tone. Along with capable contrasts that really highlight the details, this is an amazing transfer of a very obscure title.

The Audio:
Subversive also goes all out, providing both a Japanese language Dolby Digital Stereo track, as well as a marvelously atmospheric 5.1 mix. The speakers are used sporadically, mostly for sound or physical effects, and the only time the full range of the channels gets showcased is during the musical numbers. But overall, this is a great aural offering, with easy to understand dialogue (ditto on the English subtitles) and a nice balance between the noise and nuance.

The Extras:
Where this DVD packaging really shines, however, is in the bonus material department. First up, we get a full length audio commentary by director Yamaguchi, producer Ryuhei Kitamura, star Tak Sakaguchi and comedian/ actor Hidetaka Nishio. Naturally, it is presented in Japanese with English subtitles, so you will have to watch the movie before partaking of the alternative narrative – otherwise, none of the dialogue in the film will be translated onscreen. This quartet are quite unruly at first, cracking jokes, making fun of absent cast members, even commenting on the stink of each others farts. Eventually, they do calm down and we learn about the film's tight schedule and limited budget. The entire movie was filmed at an actual school, with scenes taking place in between classes (students and teachers occasionally disrupted the proceedings). Sakaguchi describes how he separated his shoulder (and how a few of the stunt personnel, who were bonesetters by profession, popped it back into place) while Yamaguchi addresses the differences between his film and Man-Gataro's manga (even citing where the comic creator wrote material specifically for the movie version). The overall atmosphere is light and comic, and with Nishio consistently applying his jester's trade, this is a very fun DVD discussion.

But the excellent added content doesn't end there. We are treated to two, 20+ minute long Making-Of featurettes. The first is exclusively taken up with footage of superstar Sakaguchi. Wearing a hip-hop ensemble and questioned by a 9 year old kid (both actor and interviewer have cards with prepared statements on them), this is a very novel approach to a standard Q&A. As he does in the commentary, Sakaguchi describes the shoot, the accidents that happened, and his approach to the role. The second Behind the Scenes short gives us actual production footage, scenes of F/X being perfected and shots being set up. In addition to these interesting glimpses into the production, there are three trailers, a series of outtakes/ bloopers (complete with take numbering for some particularly problematic bits) a karaoke style sing along of the film's romantic theme song, a brief look at the movie's premiere, two short films using "battle guys" as characters to continue Battlefield Baseball's storylines (imagine butt kicking Legos and you get the idea) and a series of clips for other Subversive product.

Perhaps the most fun of all the supplemental material is "Ramen Baka Ichidai", a short film about a young boys search for some sacred, special Ramen noodles that his dying grand pappy wishes to partake of. It is as funny and inventive as Battlefield Baseball itself. It has a definitive fairytale, storybook feel.

Final Thoughts:
It's hard not to go overboard in praise of this film. Everyone involved, from the crew to the creative cast do such a superb job of selling what is really some very strange stuff, that when you find yourself getting misty eyed over the final moments, or laughing out loud at the dumbest jokes, you know you're in grand, professional hands. While this may be giving the movie too many plaudits, it's hard to argue with the amount of enjoyment it provides. Battlefield Baseball transcends its trappings to become a glorious, escapist amusement. It may not be 100% sensible, and does occasionally get drunk on its own supernaturalism, but this is still a great big pile of pleasure in a very unsuspecting package. Battlefield Baseball not only defies expectations, but rewrites them every sensational step the way. It is one hilarious home run.

Want more Gibron Goodness? Come to Bill's TINSEL TORN REBORN Blog (Updated Frequently) and Enjoy! Click Here

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