March 24, 2016

The Big Windup!


I apologize for casting ill-informed aspersions, but when it comes to pastimes, football, baseball, and golf (and sumo) are more watchable ways of passing time than basketball, soccer, and hockey. The latter three are hampered by the wearying back and forth and back and forth that makes tennis boring too.

It's too stupidly easy to score in basketball, too stupidly difficult in soccer and hockey (soccer and hockey are what happen when human beings attempt to illustrate Brownian Motion).

What sets football, baseball, golf (and sumo) apart is the pacing. The punctuation. The pauses. The paragraph breaks. Winning depends on more than fine-tuned twitch responses, which, while demonstrating impressive physical prowess, make for a lousy narrative structure.

Granted, I rarely watch any sports event all the way through. Not even the Super Bowl (unless there's nothing else better on). But I will watch a sports movie all the way through. Especially a decent baseball movie.

The structure of baseball, the strategy of the game, the timing and pacing, allow it to become the drama itself. This is hardly news in Hollywood: The Natural, The Bad New Bears, The Sandlot, Bull Durham, The Rookie, and For Love of the Game, to start with.

And it's no less true of the sports drama in Japan, where baseball constitutes its own wide-ranging subgenre. And it is certainly applies to The Big Windup! based on the award-winning manga by Asa Higuchi.

As with many baseball stories, The Big Windup! concentrates on the "battery," the combination of the pitcher and catcher. It's a setup that brings to mind Bull Durham, with Tim Robbins as the cocky young pitcher and Kevin Costner as the veteran catcher showing him the ropes.

Except that Higuchi starts this game with a screwball, giving us a protagonist who's an emotional basketcase. Ren Mihashi, the starting pitcher, is well-nigh pathologically insecure. Imagine the Tim Robbins character instead played by Woody Allen. Seriously.

As it turns out, Ren has no pitching speed but does have exquisite control, a skill that's gone unappreciated. Catcher Takaya Abe is certain he can use it to great effect--if he can keep Ren from dissolving into an angst-ridden puddle before getting to the mound.

Yes, this could become monumentally annoying, but Higuchi knows better than to deliver the same pitch over and over. Having established a character trait, he doesn't pound it into the ground. Because this is, first and foremost, a sports melodrama.

The opening episodes consist of putting the team together, tossing in a couple of dumb teenage jokes, establishing the school as the underdogs (an all-freshman team), gearing up to face the overwhelming favorites in the regionals of the Summer Koshien tournament.

After that, it's all baseball, baseball, baseball. In fact, the entire first season consists of two games--that go on longer than would the actual games.

The Yankees should hire her.
The only comparable example I can think of is For Love of the Game, which documents a single game in near real-time. In that case, though, Kevin Costner fills its 137 minutes doing a lot of ruminating about things that have nothing to do with baseball.

The players in The Big Windup! think about nothing but baseball.

Now, I have a hard time believing that professional athletes think that much while they're playing the game, let alone high school freshmen. And yet this deconstruction of the sport at practically the atomic level works for a non-sports nut like me.

If you want to comprehend the egghead appeal of baseball, The Big Windup! is the perfect tutorial.

To be sure, this focused attention isn't monomaniacal. There are cute extraneous touches, like the baseball moms huddled together in the stands. And despite her ridiculous proportions, part-time manager Momoe is never depicted as anything but an excellent baseball tactician.

Even the quirky cheerleading culture in Japanese baseball gets its due (it's pretty much that way in real life too, only louder and more annoying).

Along the way, The Big Windup also clarifies the substance of dramatic conflict. There's more to a plot than how the tale ends. According to Nicholas Christenfeld and Jonathan Leavitt, "stories are not spoiled by spoilers." Knowing the ending can enhance enjoyment of a story.

So it could be that once you know how it turns out, it's cognitively easier--you're more comfortable processing the information--and can focus on a deeper understanding of the story.

As somebody who has only a glancing interest in who wins most sports contests (spoiler: Nishiura High wins), I can confirm that the difference between an interesting Super Bowl and a boring Super Bowl (the majority, it seems of late) has nothing to do with who wins.

It's all about how the game is played.

Related links

The Big Windup (Hulu Netflix)
The national Japanese pastime
Play ball!

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