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Baseball. It's a game I've never quite "got", to be honest (colonial knockoff of cricket, if you ask me...), but the Japanese seem to have taken to it. Taisho Baseball Girls takes us way back to the early 20th century, and to a group of girls who have the audacity to try and play what was then an exclusively male game...
1925 - six years since the end of the Great War, four years since women were allowed to join political associations and one year since Emperor Hirohito assumed the throne. Only thirteen years after the death of the Meiji Emperor, Japan is a nation re-inventing itself - war looms in China, males over the age of 24 are about to receive the right to vote and a strange new type of school uniform called the "sailor suit" is being introduced. At least the national pastime, baseball, remains bound by tradition, the exclusive realm of men and boys. Until now. When a local player arrogantly states that girls should become housewives instead of going to school, teenage firebrands Koume Suzukawa and Akiko respond by forming their own baseball team. It's shocking. It's scandalous. And yet, in a nation in which almost anything seems suddenly possible, it may just be the start of something greater than any nine girls can imagine...
Okay, that may be overselling it a little - while the scandalous nature of the girls' encroachment into a boys' sport is certainly part of what Taisho Baseball Girls is all about, it's hardly the main event - instead, the baseball forms a backdrop to a story of friendship, determination, and a minor battle against the prejudices of the day. And it's the minor battle that makes the major ones all the easier, in the end. Akiko is the driving force behind the formation of the team - a refined girl from a privileged background, she's just the sort of person who would be expected to slot neatly into the stereotypical female role, but one off-the-cuff comment from her fianceé (an arranged marriage, for the record), and the idea of "I'm better than this" is planted in her head. Koume, the daughter of a working-class restauraunteur who's having trouble dealing with the wave of modernisation that's sweeping Japan, is the first person to get caught up in her crusade, and the first few episodes of the series follow their efforts to recruit enough other girls to form their team.
Also playing a large role in all this is American teacher Anna Cartland, who both knows baseball herself and who is only too happy to encourage her students to step outside their traditional boundaries - an attitude that doesn't always win her the support of her superiors. But, taking on the role of team coach, she's soon providing all the motivation that she can for the fledgling team.
Of course, things don't start off well, with the girls getting hammered in their first practice match against boys of the same age, and having trouble even holding their own against a primary school side. But that's where those themes of friendship and determination come in, as the girls begin to understand that team sports require teamwork, tactics and the ability to pick apart and analyse what the other team is doing - and once they work that out (often with some very funny comic interludes providing the cues that help them do that), things quickly start to fall into place.
Off the diamond, there are matters of a more down-to-earth matter to deal with: relationships between the girls on the team, matters of romance for Akiko and Koume, who both have arranged betrothals to deal with (although the circumstances around those betrothals are different for both girls), and the attitudes of the older generation to such modern thinking to be dealt with. This is the sort of thing that can turn out to be quite academic and dull if it's not handled well, but Taisho Baseball Girls keeps its sense of humour with such things, playing on small misunderstandings as well as those entrenched attitudes to help keep the interest up, and in the end it works really well.
It also helps that, almost without exception, the cast of the series are utterly charming, a feeling that permeates the whole show. The nearest you get to nasty behaviour or conflict is the odd occasion when one of the boys will let their male prejudices show, but given the setup for the story that's an essential drive of events - apart from that, everyone's unfailingly polite and positive. No angst, no fuss - and that seems to be quite rare these days.
Even for someone like myself who's no fan of baseball, then, there's plenty about Taisho Baseball Girls to love, and the 12 episode passed by surprisingly quickly. Obviously if you prefer conflict and action you won't find much of it here, but if you're looking for something more down-to-earth it's an easy recommendation.
Taisho Baseball Girls' streams are region-locked and not available to the UK without a little technical trickery. Google is your friend if you're so inclined. Alternatively, the series is also available on R1 DVD from Sentai Filmworks.