Battlefield Baseball comes from the same people who gave us Versus, and it has the same wacky ramshackle feel to it, but its main flaw is that it isn’t a better movie for the material. The premise: A gang of supernaturally violent tough kids have formed a high school baseball team that leaves dead bodies strewn in its wake. The only one who can stop them is a delinquent dropout who quit playing baseball after he accidentally murdered his father with a brutally fast pitch.
This ought to be funny, and there are long stretches of Battlefield Baseball that are right on the mark. There are also just as many that miss the mark, possibly because the movie is so willing to entertain by throwing in everything it can think of that it loses sight of its truly original conceits. It’s been adapted from a comic by Gataro Man, so it has all the outlandish visual tropes of a live-action version of a manga but does not always have the needed focus. There are so many competing and conflicting ideas at work here that they work at cross-purposes. A leaner, less uninhibited movie might actually have been funnier.
Baseball stars the surly hero of Versus, Tak Sakaguchi, as Jubei (there’s a pun with his name involving a famous ninja, but never mind), the aforementioned delinquent who’s transferred into a given school one day. He comes to the rescue of one of the hapless members of the baseball team when a gang of punks start picking on him, and deals out blows so vicious and precisely aimed they wind up realigning the bad guy’s ki and making him into a good guy. When the opposing team comes to town and beats everyone to pulp, the harried principal tries to scout Jubei, but gets turned down flat.
The other team is beyond belief, a collection of horror-movie freaks who look like they wandered in from the set of Sogo Ishii’s post-apocalyptic Burst City. They use the game of baseball as an excuse to commit flat-out murder, and have the umpire completely cowed to their will. This is one of the parts where the film simply doesn’t work: instead of them showing how they could use a game of baseball to legitimately decimate the other team, the filmmakers cheat. Bad guys take the field, the camera cuts away, there’s screaming and blood flying, and when we come back the heroes have been chopped into dog food.
Despite all its talk about the game, the movie has almost no actual baseball in it;
the idea is just a way to shoehorn visual gags into the story.
This is annoying, partly because the movie hits on the whole baseball-as-death-sport thing a number of times (“They didn’t break the rules!” the umpire solemnly swears), and never really does anything with it. One of the fun things about Shaolin Soccer was how they took the game of soccer at least halfway seriously in the film. Here, the whole baseball angle is just an excuse to mix in a bunch of completely disparate plot elements. When Jubei finally gets his druthers and meets the enemy team in mortal combat, it’s something of a letdown: there isn’t even a baseball game at all, just a blood-drenched battle royale. It’s not like the low budget was a real limitation for them, so why did they cop out?
Baseball actually winds up illustrating something I’ve encountered in other movies: A movie where anything can happen is just as stymieing as a movie where nothing happens. Characters die, come back to life, are reincarnated as everything from cyborgs to the opposite sex — but none of it really adds up to anything. It’s just filler to keep the story moving from one moment to the next. Sometimes this isn’t wholly bad though: I didn’t much mind the kitchen-sink approach used in a throwaway movie like Getting Any? — but that wasn’t intended to be a whole story, just a Kentucky Fried Movie-style conveyance for a bunch of gags.
Versus director Ryuhei Kitamura didn’t actually direct this one — he’s merely listed as executive producer. Instead, his writer for Alive and Versus, Yudai Yamaguchi, took the helm, and Gataro Man penned a script directly from his own comic. The writing is probably the weakest part, because what works in a comic book doesn’t always work on a movie screen when you transpose one to the other directly. That said, there are some grandly funny moments; I loved a subplot involving one of the “good” team’s players, whose mother forbids him from ever playing baseball and who enforces her rules with a gigantic sledge hammer.
The idea behind Battlefield Baseball is, in the end, funnier than anything actually in it. I did laugh throughout the movie, but not in a way that I was compelled to laugh with it again. I understand Yamaguchi has been signed on to direct a live-action version of the manga Cromartie High, a story so strange that he might just be able to do it justice. That’s no reason to hold your breath, though.