Baseball is “America’s pastime,” and just a few notes of the Charge Theme are enough to get us salivating for a ballpark hotdog with the bases loaded and no outs. God Bless Baseball, by Toshiki Okada, opens with those instantly recognizable six notes (da de da de, da daaaa), so it’s an understatement to say that the “players” who slouch onto the stage to that fanfare – two women in casual dress, awkwardly holding mitts – are not what we were expecting. They are followed by a young man in khakis and an Oxford shirt who holds a bat with a little more authority, but not much. A lengthy discussion ensues about how “counter-intuitive” baseball seems, what an inning is, and how “bored” everyone must be waiting for something to happen. Later, they give about the worst demonstration of pitching and batting you could imagine. The man’s explanations are in vain; “There must be this really huge gap between people who know about baseball already, and people who don’t,” the women conclude, with no particular frustration.
Any paternalistic smiles in the audience will fade quickly, however (though the comic contrast of the actors’ uncomfortable postures – they stretch their toes wide, balance on one leg, hold their arms awkwardly at their sides – with baseball’s required speed and agility remains a constant throughout the play). True fans of the sport know that baseball is phenomenally popular in Japan and Korea, and it turns out these characters know quite a lot about teams and players in those countries: the Yomirui Giants, the Yakult Swallows, pitchers Hideo Nomo (the first Japanese player in the major leagues), Park Chan-Ho (aka The Korean Express), who pitched for the Los Angeles Dodgers… The World Baseball Classic also looms large in their collective subconscious, but this is natural, as well; the tournament set up a lasting rivalry between Japan and Korea, the two countries from which the members of this odd-ball trio hail (they also speak in both languages, with subtitles in English and either Japanese or Korean).
Of course, the love affair that Japan and Korea have with baseball is the story of their equal fascination with America. Okada has chosen to copy-cat the title of his play on “God Bless America,” and the allusion is deliberate. How Okada gradually, meticulously teases out the nuances of this relationship is a slow-motion pleasure to observe, a little like watching the instant replay of a slider drop just under a swinging bat and into the catcher’s mitt. Everything is an allegory here, and in case we forget it, the characters will remind us of it, again and again.
In other words, despite the show’s deliberate seeming preciousness, Okada conveys his intentions very directly. That allegory relies on the introduction of two disruptive presences into the trio’s midst. One is a certain Ichiro, or more precisely an impersonator of the Japanese right-fielder for the Miami Marlins, Ichiro Suzuki: a record-setting personality probably best known for a batting stance so fussy it looks like a parody of the game’s most distinctive ritual. The other is a disembodied Voice with a Midwestern inflection that self-importantly interjects tidbits of wisdom such as the history of baseball’s arrival in Asia, the meaning of Robinson Day, and such platitudes as “The Major Leagues are a field of dreams. It’s a platform that brings hope into the world…” blah, blah, blah. While the one bullies, pelting the trio with balls and forcing them into a ridiculous mind-body exercise, the other holds the moral and cultural high ground. Together they are the carrot and stick of American policy in Asia, both “encouraging and discouraging” Japan and Korea to follow Uncle Sam’s example, as one of the women remarks, furiously swinging the bat as if she could see her invisible opponent.
Just like the man and women aren’t too interested in baseball as a sport but rather as an arc in their countries’ mutual histories, Okada is less concerned with celebrating it as looking critically at how its import has impacted Japanese and Korean culture and society. There is a sub-current in God Bless Baseball of failed fathers and disappointed sons; of a corporate culture that exhausts breadwinners while incessantly increasing its power and influence; and of a certain escapism through professional sports and its unhealthy public rituals of drinking and machismo. If baseball is indeed an allegory for life, as Ichiro informs the others, it is a life that has turned away from its own values and integrity in favor of obsequious conformity to imported pleasures. The most intriguing feature of the set, which is bare except for a scaled-down baseball diamond drawn on the stage floor, is an enormous parabolic antenna that hangs on the back wall and through which the Voice addresses the others. Its symbolism is obvious but, by hosing it down at intervals during the show’s final minutes, the characters cause it to drip huge, wet clumps of white paint onto the floor, exposing a plain wooden apparatus underneath. It feels a little like going behind the curtain at the end of The Wizard of Oz and finding out the great and mysterious one is just an old man.
According to the same analogy, baseball is the story of leaving home (plate) and testing oneself in the world (field), but where “the greatest value is placed on coming home” again. If that’s true, the inevitable conclusion is that Japan and Korea must now find their way back. With Okada’s characteristic pacing, deadpan humor, stylized movement and deliberate subverting of performance codes, God Bless Baseball provides the simplest kind of enjoyment of watching a master at his art. But in his sustained metaphor for a thorny topic – American imperialism in Asia – that is deliciously clever and fun too, Okada proves once again that he can hit it out of the park.