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‘Tabidachi no Shima Uta — Jugo no Haru (Leaving on the 15th Spring)’

Island teenhood means an inevitable goodbye

by Mark Schilling

Goodbyes aren’t what they used to be. Kids moving away for school today can be in constant contact with friends and family back home, texting as soon as the train doors close on a waving Mom and Dad.

But in this country of many islands, some of which are specks in the ocean where cellphones don’t reach, exceptions to the always-wired rule still exist.

Working from his own on-location research, Yasuhiro Yoshida has scripted and filmed a drama, “Tabidachi no Shima Uta — Jugo no Haru (Leaving on the 15th Spring),” set on one such exception: a small island called Minamidaito 360 km from Okinawa with a population of 1,200 and no high school.

After finishing 9th grade at a school so small they share their cafeteria with primary school children, most of the island’s 15-year-olds continue their education on Okinawa. And every year departing girls belonging to a traditional music circle perform a song titled “Abayoi” (“Goodbye” in the local dialect) for their tight-knit community. The film’s heroine is the sweet-but-serious circle leader, Yuna (Ayaka Miyoshi).

Given that Yoshida and his crew both filmed on the island and enlisted many of the locals as extras and actors, why, one might wonder, did he fictionalize what could well have made for an interesting documentary?

But like mentor Kazuyuki Izutsu, another Osaka native for whom he long worked as an assistant director, Yoshida can universalize from the real without turning his people into case studies or stereotypes. Unlike Izutsu, who likes to mix ferocious delinquent brawls with his teen love stories, 2004′s “Pacchigi! (Break Through!)” being the best example, Yoshida prefers to speak volumes with nonviolent, emotionally charged suggestion. That is, he brings an understated lyricism to what an ordinary documentary might have reduced to just-the-facts prose.

The film begins just as the previous leader leaves the island for her education and Yuna is told that she will be singing “Abayoi” in only a year. But her family, to whom she is supposed to bid a fond farewell in the song, is hardly the picture of happy togetherness. Her older brother Masashi and older sister Mina (Saori Koide), as well as her mother Akemi (Shinobu Otake), are living on Okinawa, for reasons Yuna can’t quite fathom. (Akemi’s original reason for going — to care for the then-teenage Mina — no long applies now that Mina is a grown, married woman.)

Meanwhile, her father (Kaoru Kobayashi) stoically tends to his sugar-cane field but relies on Yuna to keep the household running. Then Mina suddenly shows up with her baby — and with no clear explanation of why she has left her husband.

The story, however, is more than its mysterious (at least to Yuna) domestic dramas. During an annual sports and culture festival held with a nearby island Yuna meets the tall, handsome, excruciatingly shy boy who is the star pitcher of the rival team and they agree to exchange — how so last century! — letters. Love begins to bloom across the choppy ocean waters.

Miyoshi plays Yuna much the way she played a similarly grown-up-fast girl in the quirky 2012 family comedy “Gumo Ebian! (G’mor Evian!).” While obviously being the prettiest girl in the room, she comes across as naturally in the moment, without a trace of self-involved vanity. Unlike the many teen-idol actresses trying their darnedest to charm, Miyoshi delivers a performance that is serious, focused and seemingly effortless.

Her Yuna can be accused of willful blindness to what is really going on between Mom and Dad, but she is a loyal, loving daughter, as well as a talented representative of her island to the bigger world outside (with Miyoshi herself singing and playing the sanshin, a traditional instrument resembling the better-known shamisen, on the soundtrack). Yes, she is almost too good to be true, but so were all those ideal if conflicted women Setsuko Hara played for Yasujiro Ozu.

And yes, I cried buckets at the end, just as I did when Hara’s character finally married in 1949′s “Banshun (Late Spring),” leaving her widowed father to peel his apple alone. Not that Yoshida is a latter-day Ozu, but he does know how to stage a goodbye. It has less to do with keeping his characters unwired, more to do with making them people we know, care about and love.

Fun fact: Yoshida says that Okinawan folk group Begin agreed to supply the film’s theme song, “Haru ni Gondola,” after he told them that he “wanted to make a film showing the real Okinawa, cloudy skies and all.”