Review: In Shohei Ohtani documentary, secret to star's success is in defying expectations

Shohei Ohtani has become a household name among baseball fans. The greatness of this unique player of a generation is known even beyond baseball circles. How have any of his last three seasons, in particular, been humanly possible? Many have pondered.

The answer, at least in part, rests in a typically unseen side of the two-way star that director Toru Tokikawa captured in his upcoming documentary, “Shohei Ohtani: Beyond the Dream,” which will be available Nov. 17 exclusively on ESPN+. Through a series of interviews with Ohtani and those who either inspired him or have been present for his journey, Tokikawa’s aim was to create a moving cinematic piece that not only is motivational to viewers, but also showed all of what Ohtani’s story encompasses.

“When we started filming, the title was ‘Shohei Ohtani: Chasing the American Dream,’” Tokikawa said during a recent interview with The Times. “But during the filming, he accomplished breaking lots more MLB records and also won the [World Baseball Classic]. … So we really thought, ‘We need to upgrade the title.’”

Among the important themes on display: Ohtani’s mentality and decision making, which typically have gone against what most had expected. Defying odds and expectations has been an aspect of Ohtani’s identity, as natural as his two-way prowess has appeared over the years.

Picking to play for the Angels after leaving Japan — a decision Ohtani claimed in the documentary was based on a gut feeling, which he also suggested was what guided him in his choice of high school and his Nippon Professional Baseball team — was a prime example of Ohtani going against what the baseball world thought he would do.

His career decisions thus far, he reflects, have followed suit. In helping explain his mind-set, the documentary enlists current and former players such as Pedro Martínez (who narrates the English version of the film), Hideki Matsui (who narrates the Japanese version), Yu Darvish and CC Sabathia, former managers Hideki Kuriyama, Mike Scioscia and Joe Maddon, and his agent, Nez Balelo. And it’s presented by Tokikawa in a way that flows as a natural, candid dialogue between Ohtani and the other voices.

“I’m thankful for the opportunity to share my journey in this documentary,” Ohtani said in a statement leading up to the release. “Hearing the stories shared by my childhood heroes has been truly inspiring.

“I hope this documentary stands as a testament to the importance of resilience, passion, and self-belief in the pursuit of excellence.”

For example, during his freshman year of high school, Ohtani wrote out a very detailed dreamboard, with the focal point being to get drafted by eight professional teams, outlined by all the ways he would achieve various goals to get there. The ambition displayed by the dreamboard, which is shown to Martínez, Matsui and Sabathia, took the baseball legends by surprise, impressed by his mind-set at such a young age. Ohtani explained that he simply was writing down things that were important to him.

Ohtani intended to go straight to the U.S. after high school to start his professional career. Every team interested in him in the U.S., as well as just about every team in Japan, envisioned him as just a pitcher, even though his confidence was seen more when he was hitting.

It wasn’t until Kuriyama and the Hokkaido Nippon-Ham Fighters approached Ohtani with an offer to be a pitcher and a hitter that he was presented with the chance to set his own course. Ohtani had not even considered the possibility he could do both at the professional level. There hadn’t been a true two-way player in the major leagues in decades.

Whether anyone truly believed Ohtani could succeed as a two-way player, however, is something he questions during the documentary, even to former managers who subscribed to his career path when he joined their teams. He heard the criticism and doubts voiced by everyone from scouts to the media.

He knew once he decided to become a two-way player that there would be obstacles and acknowledges that, particularly in reflecting on his seasons with the Angels from 2018 to 2020, which were not what he hoped for from a performance and health standpoint. He characterizes his own resolve by saying: “I want to dedicate my time and push my limits to see how far I can go. You could say that it’s sort of my hobby.”

What it all will amount to is as open-ended as the documentary. Ohtani, no matter what he decides to do this offseason, is headed into the next chapter of his career in which he continues to redefine baseball.

What lies ahead is his to create.

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