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Sweat and Glory: 5 of the most memorable Japanese sports movies to date

Get into the Tokyo Olympics spirit with these inspiring stories.

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Every four years, the Olympic and Paralympic Games draw in millions of spectators around the world because they exemplify fundamental values that we humans cherish the most: resilience, tenacity, expressiveness, glory. But while the world shares the same Olympic values, the atmosphere of each event varies according to the venue. The world has set eyes on Japan in anticipation of the upcoming Tokyo Olympic Games — the second time that the capital is an Olympic host. It will also be a showcase of Japan’s technology, architecture, infrastructure, and omotenashi hospitality, which will altogether play a significant role in welcoming international athletes.

So what can we expect from the upcoming Tokyo Olympic Games? The answer lies in the way many Japanese people think about sport as not just a hobby or career, but a rite of passage. The best way to get a grasp of this mindset is by watching some of Japan’s best-known sports movies — so without further ado, here are a few of our wholeheartedly recommended ones.

1. Waterboys (ウォーターボーイズ), 2001

“Waterboys” is the tale of a group of high school boys who form a synchronized swimming team after being inspired by their beautiful new swimming teacher. Inspired by real students from the Kawagoe High School in Saitama Prefecture, who choreographed a synchronized swimming exhibition for their school festival, the film made the school so famous that, to this day, they’re still getting visitors wanting to see the place where it all happened. The movie follows the boys through their struggles to put two and two together in synchronized swimming — a sport they know (and like) nothing of — through tears and pain, but most of all, laughter and hard, hard work.

Director Shinobu Yaguchi, known for creating some of Japan’s best youth comedies, successfully captured the tireless spirit of the Kawagoe boys, while also applying his signature style to the movie. “Waterboys” is ultimately a film about sports being an escape from the mundanity of life, whose only goal is to make us better than who we were yesterday.

Cast: Satoshi Tsumabuki, Hiroshi Tamaki
Director: Shinobu Yaguchi

2. Kids Return (キッズ・リターン), 1996

“Kids Return” focuses on two delinquents, Shinji and Masaru, and the two paths they take. The former aims to become a professional boxer while the latter joins the mafia. In the end, though, both journeys come to an abrupt end, leaving the two with nothing. But the final message isn’t defeatist. On the contrary, it’s all about how once you hit rock bottom and everything seems hopeless, the only thing you can do is pick yourself up and try again — a message that many athletes can identify with.

The movie is also a self-reflection for director Takeshi Kitano: “Kids Return” was a film made in the aftermath of his life-changing 1994 motorcycle accident, which left him partially paralyzed. The accident greatly influenced Kitano’s life and work, and “Kids Return,” filmed during his rehabilitation phase, is ultimately a sports movie about a person losing everything but still finding the strength to go forward.

Cast: Ken Kaneko, Masanobu Ando
Director: Takeshi Kitano

3. Ping Pong (ピンポン), 2002

“Ping Pong” is more than just a movie about a high school table tennis club: it’s a close-up of every major sportsman archetype. We are presented with three types of characters, in which most athletes will find themselves — or, at least, their pre-pro selves. We have Peco, who is passionate about sports but becomes easily complacent. Then there is Smile, a natural talent who doesn’t get too worked up about competing. Finally, there is Kazama, who sees sport as a challenge that, for the longest time, didn’t bring him any pleasure. “Ping Pong” is a story about the clash of those personalities, and it plays almost like a theatrical drama — fitting, given Shido Nakamura’s (Kazama) background. Nakamura is an accomplished kabuki actor who only auditioned for “Ping Pong” to challenge himself with other types of acting to improve his theater performances. This attitude, while not directly related to sport, is something that many dedicated athletes will more than understand.

Cast: Yosuke Kubozuka, Arata, Naoto Takenaka
Director: Fumihiko Sori

4. Flying Rabbits (フライング☆ラビッツ), 2008

The movie’s plot revolves around Yukari (Satomi Ishihara), who’s worked hard to become a flight attendant, a job she currently excels at. But her confidence is shaken when she is drafted to the company’s basketball team and discovers she has no talent for sport. With time, though, she realizes that everything that made her good at her job is transferable to basketball: dedication, anticipating the needs of others, and excelling on a personal level while also working as part of a team. As the movie shows, in Japan, it is common to have employees signing up for their companies’ sports teams. The reason those activities exist, even in corporate settings, goes back to the roots of the Japanese mindset about work and sport — which, as we find out in “Flying Rabbits,” have very similar common grounds.

In preparation for the film, Ishihara underwent basketball and cabin crew training, during which she discovered quite a few intriguing things about both worlds. Japanese female flight attendants, for example, are discouraged from looking at seated passengers from a 45-degree angle as their intentions might be “misinterpreted” as seductive. Interesting!

Cast: Satomi Ishihara, Yoko Maki
Director: Takahisa Zeze

5. Yowamushi Pedal (劇場版 弱虫ペダル), 2015

An animated movie version of the popular TV anime and manga, the script for “Yowamushi Pedal” was written by Wataru Watanabe, the author of the original comic who draws and writes what he knows. In fact, the manga was born during a conversation with Watanabe’s editor, who asked him what’s he really into lately, to which Watanabe responded “cycling.” The two then decided that cycling was to be the new theme for Watanabe’s next comic series and the rest is pretty much history. Watanabe served as the model for the main character in “Yowamushi Pedal,” Sakamichi Onoda, a bespectacled geek who joins his school’s racing club after discovering that he has a talent for cycling. In the movie, we see Onoda and his friends training and participating in one of the toughest bike races, the fictional Kumamoto Hinokuni Yamanami Race.

While cycling is a big part of the Japanese culture, bicycle sports stories are surprisingly rare, which is yet another reason to watch “Yowamushi Pedal,” ultimately a story about cycling as the perfect teamwork. A favorite comic, theatrical show, and anime in Japan, a live adaptation of “Yowamushi Pedal” is also set for release in August 2020, starring idol Ren Nagase.

Cast: Daiki Yamashita, Kosuke Toriumi
Director: Norihiro Naganuma

Sport is a vital endeavor for Japanese people. It’s not a surprise that Japanese children are taught sports from early childhood, nor that sport, in the form of club activities, takes up half of their school life later on. Or that as adults, many continue to train themselves, often picking up sport with their companies’ teams. Sport, in Japan, is an introduction and training to the essential virtues of Japanese society: hard work, consistency, and a never giving up spirit. These virtues, as we can see in the movies, exceed the borders of sport, and affect every part of the Japanese life.

As Japan continues to prepare for the long-anticipated Tokyo 2020 Games, several other must-watch sports movies are set for release this year. Take note of “#Hando Zenryoku,” a film about an unsuccessful handball team that rises from the ashes; and “Suijo no Flight” (Flight above Water), a story about an unstoppable Paralympic Canoe female athlete, starring Ayami Nakajo.

Text by Cezary Strusiewicz

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