Kikansha Sensei

Rating: * * 1/2 (out of 5)
Director: Ryuichi Hiroki
Running time: 123 minutes
Language: Japanese
Currently showing
[See Japan Times movie listings]

When I taught at a boys high school in the early 1980s, I would, without fail, catch a bad chest cold in the winter and lose my voice, sometimes for weeks on end. Ever tried to teach five classes of rowdy teenage boys while only managing to whisper and utter the odd croak? The first time it happened to me, I was terrified of losing what little control I had. I was overdosing on throat lozenges, pacing the room to cow troublemakers and, when all else failed, slamming books and heaving erasers. Hell, I decided, is not being able to project beyond the first row. I finally quit the job, quit that lozenge addiction and have never looked back.

Seigo Yoshioka (Kenji Sakaguchi), the hero of Ryuichi Hiroki’s “Kikansha Sensei (Locomotive Teacher)” has it even worse. A stab to the throat in a kendo match has rendered him mute, ending his budding career as a teacher in late 1950s Hokkaido.

As the film begins, however, he is on a boat headed toward a small island in the Seto Inland Sea and a new job teaching at the island’s only school. His mother, an island native who left three decades before, used her old friendship with the school principal (Masaaki Sakai) to help get him the job, but now he is on his own, knowing little of what awaits him.

If you have seen have any of the many films about teachers in the boonies, including the 1954 Keisuke Kinoshita weeper “Twenty-Four Eyes (Nijushi no Hitomi)” or the 1974 Martin Ritt social drama “Conrack,” you have a fair idea of what is coming. Seigo’s seven young charges, including the poor-but-feisty Shuhei and dreamy-but-artistically-talented Yoko, are uniformly adorable. After a bit of initial awkwardness, Seigo wins their hearts with his manly presence and straight-as-an-arrow sincerity. He even likes the nickname they give him: Kikansha Sensei, for his powerful frame and look of steamy intensity.

Seigo quickly wins adult supporters as well, beginning with the lovably fusty principal, who tells him the story of his mother’s troubled island romance with his naval officer father. His matinee idol looks set female hearts aflutter, including those of the earthy, chain-smoking Yoneba (“Granny Yone”; Mitsuko Baisho) — the island’s only doctor — and the sultry Yoshie (Nene Otsuka) — the proprietor of the only pub.

But to the gruff Jutaro (Masato Ibu), the island’s boss fisherman, the very presence of this speechless teacher is an insult. Why couldn’t the school find a “healthy” one? He and his mates have little but scorn for this mute outsider.

In a Hollywood movie, one would expect romantic clinches and righteous punches somewhere along the way. But true to its roots in postwar Japanese cinema, when purity and pacifism were the marks of a high-minded hero, “Kikansha Sensei” goes in another direction entirely. Seigo is less the battling, reforming educator than the misunderstood martyr whose only weapons are his earnestness, dedication and willingness to suffer.

Also, instead of black and white, the film paints its tiny world in comforting shades of gray. Bad things happen to good people, but the agents of their destruction are revealed as flawed but — wouldn’t you know it? — basically decent human beings. Instead of righting wrongs and punishing the guilty, Seigo’s mission becomes getting his groove back and leaving the island folk as one happy, harmonious family.

Ryuichi Hiroki, who explored emotional extremes on the social fringes in last year’s award-winning “Vibrator,” heads straight toward the cultural center in “Kikansha Sensei,” as the Shochiku studio might have defined it in the 1950s. But where Shochiku’s “Twenty-Four Eyes” sprang directly from the horrors of a still-recent war, and is all the more moving for this immediacy, “Kikansha Sensei” has the look and feel of recycled and tepid — if beautifully packaged — nostalgia. Its target seems to be less graying Baby Boomers and their elders, who remember the times it portrays, than fans of star Kenji Sakaguchi.

This hunk of burnin’ love, who comes from the worlds of fashion modeling and TV drama, complete with flawless cheekbones and flashing bedroom eyes, looks gorgeous on camera — but is in far over his head playing a role that would have challenged a much more accomplished actor. He poses stiffly in scenes where Sean Penn would have bared his soul.

Sakaguchi is supported by an accomplished cast, led by the eternally vivacious Mitsuko Baisho, but they only expose his inadequacies. By the end, when he dons his kendo mask to fight in a big tournament, we are far more interested in his island cheering section than his generic martial exertions.

Granted, he is likable — but likable isn’t enough to carry a two-hour movie, let alone tell us who Seigo really is. Why did he become a teacher in the first place? Why does he seem to have zero sex drive, despite being stuck on an island with the luscious Nene Otsuka? And how does he keep seven antsy kids in his thrall, day in and day out, with little more than chalk and hand gestures? His good looks? Maybe what I needed in that high school wasn’t a voice, but a makeover.

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