"Children on the Island" (Little Tokyo Cinema 1) had the makings of a gentle, decent little movie, but it's hopelessly weighed down by great dollops of sentimentality. It seems interminably longer than its two hours and nine minutes, and the length is compounded by needlessly slow pacing. It's a real four-hankie tear-jerker.
A remake of Keisuke Kinoshita's well-regarded 1954 film "Twenty-Four Eyes," which was based on a novel by Sakae Tsuboi, "Children of the Island" is a long-winded story of the love between a pretty, noble young teacher named Hisako (Yuko Tanaka) and her very first class of pupils on beautiful, unspoiled Shodo Island in Japan's Inland Sea. The year is 1928, and demure as she is, Hisako shocks the peasants with her western clothes and bicycle. But she soon wins the hearts of the children, whom she sees through the hardships of the Depression and the tragic losses of World War II.
The film has admirably strong pacifist sentiments, and it's at its best in those moments when Hisako is candid to her students in her opposition to Japan's increasing militarism. By the mid '30s, however, Hisako resigns rather than to submit to silence, which allows her to be a full-time Mother Teresa.
Yoshitaka Asama has directed "Children on the Island" with sensitivity and commitment, and Tanaka is exquisite in her portrayal. But for every moment that rings true, there are twice as many that are no more than heart-tugging at their most manipulative.
For once the violin-heavy hearts-and-flowers score lets up long enough for a near-wordless sequence when Tanaka visits a bright student who has been forced to drop out to work in her mother's busy restaurant. The mother, played by the esteemed Nobuko Otowa, shows us the hardness beneath her glib graciousness to Tanaka, who realizes that any words of protest would only worsen the child's plight. This splendidly understated episode suggests what "Children on the Island" (Times-rated: Family) might have been.
The Directors Festival continues in Little Tokyo Cinema 2 with a week-long run of two of the finest Japanese films of recent years, Kohei Oguri's Oscar-nominated "Muddy River" and Sogo Ishii's outrageous and original "Crazy Family."
'CHILDREN ON THE ISLAND' A Shochiku release of a co-production of Shochiku/Tohokushinsha Film/Dentsu/Tokyo Broadcasting System. Executive producers Shizuo Yamanouchi, Shinji Nakagawa, Yoichi Hattori & Yozo Isozaki. Producers Takeshi Motomura, Toru Najima, Toshihiro Iijima. Directed by Yoshitaka Asama. Screenplay Keisuke Kinoshita; from the novel by Sakae Tsuboi. Screenplay adapted by Asama. Camera Mitsufumi Hanada. Music Shigeaki Saegusa. Art director Nobutaka Yoshino. With Yuko Tanaka, Tetsuya Takeda, Sumie Sasaki, Misako Konno, Taro Kawano, Naoko Nozawa, Miho Takagi, Tatsuo Matsumura. Narrator Kiyoshi Atsumi. In Japanese, with English subtitles.
Running time: 2 hours, 9 minutes.