Canadian Heritage Minute to tell story of historical baseball team Vancouver Asahi

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      One of Canada's most successful sports stories was based right here in Vancouver—but it remains one that many Canadians know little about.

      That may change as Historica Canada is set to film a national public-service Heritage Minute that will tell the tale.

      For those who may be unaware, the Vancouver Asahi was a historic and groundbreaking baseball team of local Japanese Canadians that was established in 1914.

      Based in Oppenheimer Park in the Downtown Eastside, the team initially struggled, but they rose to success with their special style of "brain ball", in which they used special strategies to outwit and outrun their competition.

      Unfortunately, the team was forced to disband in 1942 when Japanese Canadians were interned during the Second World War after Japan's attack on Pearl Harbour.

      The team was inducted into the Canadian Baseball Hall of Fame in 2003 and a commemorative plaque about them was installed in Openheimer Park in 2011.

      Previous films have told their story, such as the National Film Board of Canada 2003 documentary Sleeping Tigers: The Asahi Baseball Story, directed by Jari Osborne, and the 45-minute 2014 documentary Brain Ball: The Legacy of the Vancouver Asahi, a U.S.–Canada coproduction.

      Vancouver Asahi (Bankuba no Asahi)

      In 2014, the Japan-Canada coproduction Vancouver Asahi (Bankuba no Asahi), directed by Ishii Yuya, had its world premiere at the Vancouver International Film Festival. The film's lead actors, popular Japanese stars Satoshi Tsumabuki and Kazuya Kamenashi, attended the premiere, as fans turned out in droves.

      That film was shot in Japan (with scenes of Vancouver recreated on studio sets), but this new production will be shot here.

      The world premiere of Vancouver Asahi (Bankuba no Asahi) was held at the 2014 Vancouver International Film Festival.
      Craig Takeuchi

      The one-minute vignette will made by Vancouver-based Point Blank Creative, with director Scooter Corkle, cowriter Kai Nagata, and consultants Grace Eiko Thomson, former Nikkei Museum curator and former National Association of Japanese Canadians (NAJC) president; NAJC representative Lisa Uyeda; and Nikkei Museum lead archivist Linda Kawamoto Reid.

      The production will shoot from October 9 to 14, with locations in both Vancouver and at the site of a former internment camp in the Sunshine Valley in Hope, B.C. The production is also currently seeking background performers of Japanese descent as well as those of all ethnic backgrounds.

      On the line from Toronto, Historica Canada president and CEO Anthony Wilson-Smith admitted that, like many Canadians, he wasn't familiar with the story until it was (no pun intended) pitched to them.

      However, it fit all of their main criteria.

      "We want the stories that we look for to be meaningful in the present context, to tell something about Canada that matters to people who may not have known before, and more than anything else to be an interesting human-interest story, and in our view, Asahi has all of that," he explained.

      Also, it highlights a success story during a difficult time period.

      "The '30s, of course, was a time when B.C. was much more homogenous than now and it was not a pleasant time very often to be Japanese Canadian…so they faced evident racism in day-to-day life but baseball was where they got respect and actually some affection. In other words, they were followed by people who were not only Japanese Canadian but some of their fans were from the white mainstream that often otherwise was rejecting them."

      Vancouver Asahi (Bankuba no Asahi)

      One benefit of telling the Vancouver Asahi story is that it isn't specifically about the Japanese Canadian internment, even though it touches upon that event. Accordingly, it can attract viewers on a number of different levels, ranging from sports to civic history.

      Wilson-Smith said this approach reflects the essence of what they try to do.

      "It's when you can make it real and when you can find a subject of interest that will cause people who might not normally hear about this to pay attention in other ways. In other words, if you're a baseball fan but not otherwise inclined to look at history much, perhaps this will get people going and bring them in," he said. "We try with the Minutes to make people who watch them think, 'What would it have been like to be around then?' "

      The Asahi story can therefore attract viewers through other interests and then introduce or educate them about another aspect of history. What's more, instead of simply presenting abstract number, facts, or figures, the story offers human experiences to empathize with.

      "It's not like a documentary where you're talking a lot about the impact of the camps themselves on hundreds of thousands of people so much as it is the story of a couple of individuals within, [and] their experience," Wilson-Smith said.  

      Vancouver Asahi (Bankuba no Asahi)

      Previous Heritage Minutes have highlighted historical discrimination in Canada against individuals and groups, such as their first LGBT video, about gay-rights pioneer Jim Egan, which was released in June.

      However, Wilson-Smith pointed out that they don't simply focus on chronicling Canada's past mistakes or injustices.

      "The overall philosophy for us is…we believe Canada's a wonderful country, we believe it does great things, and we tell many happy stories in the Minutes about great Canadian achievements but we also believe that a country, just like an individual person, is made better by highlighting things that we didn't do necessarily well or we did perhaps just do wrong, injustices that occurred, how they were corrected, and telling those stories in a human way, and I think Asahi is a great example of that," he said.  

      Wilson-Smith said that a specific release date for the Asahi Heritage Minute is still to be determined but will it be sometime in spring 2019.

      You can follow Craig Takeuchi on Twitter at @cinecraig or on Facebook