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In Japan, Seniors Step Up to Bat

Patrick Davison is striking out stereotypes about old age in “Balloon Elderly,” a documentary about a slow-pitch softball team in Hongodai, Japan, made up mostly of men over 70. In Davison’s mind, these men embody the definition of the Japanese word ikigai, which roughly translates to “reason for being.”

“I was inspired by this idea and how the Balloon Elderly found some of their ikigai in the friendship and camaraderie of the team and in the game of softball,” he says. “They liked winning as much as anyone, but it didn’t seem to be their main motivation. They truly cared about each other, and they tried to make the team a place where everyone was supported through the struggles of aging.”

Davison, director of documentary projects and professor of visual communication at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, shot “Balloon Elderly” while he was in Japan as a Fulbright Scholar. He chronicles a season on the field with the Balloon Elderly, following the team through the final round of the Hinohara Tournament.

He spends time with the players off the field, too, delving into their personal lives. “That was probably the biggest challenge—getting beyond societal barriers to reveal deeper stories,” Davison says. “In Japan, the society is very, very close-knit and getting access beyond the surface level is really, really difficult. It’s not that they distrust or dislike you. It’s just not something that’s done. It’s not societally accepted to ask to spend time with someone who is caring for their wife who has Alzheimer’s.”

Still, the filmmaker gets his subjects to open up, adding a layer of poignancy to “Balloon Elderly.” One of the players, 79-year-old Yoshio Wada, talks about the death of his wife and his desire to live to 100. Another member of the team, Kinsaku Okabe, 83, reveals health issues and wishes he could quit working to focus on softball.

Davison’s wife, Emiko, was instrumental in helping him develop a trusting relationship with these men so they felt comfortable talking. A native of Japan, she was the film’s translator and fixer. “We got married there in ’88, and we’ve traveled to Japan a number of times. Our kids are half Japanese, and her parents would come to visit. So I’ve been exposed to the culture, but I don’t know the culture really deeply like she does. Even in interviews, I would come at it from an American perspective, and she would help me understand the nuances of the answers,” says Davison, adding, “It’s not really my film. I’d say it’s our film because we did it together. It was a team effort.”

When we’re not making films, we’re watching them. Introducing “Great Big Spotlight,” Great Big Story’s latest series highlighting our favorite documentaries from some of the best filmmaking talent out there. First up is Pat Davison’s “Balloon Elderly.” Watch more from Davison at his website, and learn more about his latest film, “A Hello Story.”


Hongodai, Japan

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