I'd never heard of it, but in Japan it's revered and frequently appears on lists of the all-time greatest Japanese films. I saw the running time and braced myself for an endurance test, but I was wrong. It's entertaining and very watchable, as well as being legitimately a "great movie".
It's based on a novel that covers spans two decades (1928-1946). You'll have noticed that this includes World War Two. That's the explanation of the running time. Instead of being one achingly long movie, it's more like three short movies put together into a saga that both earns and needs its running time. I wouldn't want it to be shorter. Furthermore, each segment's under an hour, so you could almost call it brisk. We're following a teacher (Hideko Takamine) and her twelve pupils. We see the children grow up from snaggle-toothed brats into young teenagers and finally into adults.
Well, the ones who live, anyway. Your odds of survival are better if you're female, but don't think for a moment that the girls get off scot-free.
SEGMENT ONE: 1928
The first segment is the liveliest and most entertaining. The tragedy hasn't begun yet, you see. We're simply having fun with Takamine and her mob of gap-toothed goblins.
The story begins with Takamine as the new teacher on an island where they don't like strangers, modern thinking (e.g. bicycles, Western clothes) or acting like a decent human being. The adults are pretty repellent, to be honest. One of them takes the hump about imaginary slights and tears Takamine off a strip in front of the children. My theory is that they're mildly inbred.
The children though are magnificent. Takamine worships them and calls them "twenty-four beautiful eyes", which I'd call a violation of reality since some of these kids had clearly eaten the ugly stick. They're gap-toothed goblins, but this just makes them all the more entertaining. They don't waste much time in deciding that they adore Takamine, yet they're also boisterous monsters who at one point perpetrate a practical joke that nearly kills her. Takamine's predecessor loved them, but they'd sometimes reduced her to tears. In short, they're awesome. They made me laugh and they're acting their little socks off, entirely in the moment and uninhibited. One boy delivers an "I agree" line by jumping in the air with his arms above his head, for instance.
They're good kids, I think. I liked them and I'd have enjoyed being their teacher. They're certainly far more generous and open-hearted than their parents.
This segment deserves attention, if only because it tends to get overlooked in the haste to dissect the movie's later anti-war sentiments. It's interesting for the comparisons it's drawing between the villagers and Takamine, I think. Both are utterly Japanese, but they're opposites. That's what the film's talking about. It's a post-war film that's holding up a mirror to the attitudes of the previous quarter-century and standing up for humanity and compassion. Takamine's character is anti-war from beginning to end and cares deeply about her charges as individuals, but she's also utterly Japanese even when she's disagreeing with pretty much her entire society. She's charming, dutiful and infinitely forgiving. Never once does she answer back, start a fight or do anything her mother wouldn't approve of. Even when the children nearly cripple her, she doesn't shout at them.
On top of that, she's cool, being jolly and chipper in the face of obnoxious gits. She's also a terrifyingly better teacher than her fusty old colleague, whose idea of classroom management involves repeating himself a few times, then folding like a pack of cards when he's ignored.
SEGMENT TWO: 1933
The bad stuff starts here. Life's dangerous when you're poor, short of good medical facilities and/or being forced out of school into a role for which you're not ready. Some of this is pretty damn harsh. There's death. It could have been gruelling... but it's not, because Takamine and the children are optimistic despite everything. The film's still essentially happy, when the characters aren't under assault from real life.
In addition, politics is getting oppressive. A teacher gets arrested for spreading anti-war ideas, which surprises Takamine because she agrees with this so-called communist and had been reading his book to her class. Her headmaster takes a dim view of this.
"Japan is now threatened by its enemies." That's a scary level of self-deception... and the generals had an entire country marching in step with that.
This section could have been tough going, but Takamine makes it optimistic despite everything. She's not a rebel, mind you. She's not mounting the barricades. She's just an ordinary woman who can't change the world... and besides, right now her pupils are facing more immediate problems than a possible future war. Some are facing the death of loved ones. Some are being sent to work.
SEGMENT THREE: up to 1946
In some ways, this could be argued to be the weakest segment. Takamine's simply a mother for much of it. She's not really standing up to anything, except the sentiments of children. "You're a coward." "Yes." "You'd be the mother of a patriot." We understand how Takamine feels, but she's become basically a spectator as Japan's war trundles ever onwards, far offscreen.
The middle-aged make-up on Takamine isn't the best either. You can see that they're trying and Takamine herself works hard at transforming her performance, but there's only so much that they can do with the fact that she's still young and beautiful.
This section of the film is still heartfelt, though. Bad things don't stop happening, then eventually the war ends and suddenly things are coming full circle. Takamine meets the survivors, then returns to the island and meets the next generation... who are played by the same children we saw in 1928. It's like a delicately observed, subtle, beautifully understated bombshell that lasts about half an hour. There's a lot of crying and you'll be among them. Even remembering it to write this review is emotional. Amazingly though, even this late stage of the film isn't depressing. It never loses its optimism, always looking to the future with children even as it remembers the past.
I love the acting, of which by far the most important are Takamine and the children. I've already praised the latter, who were incidentally all amateurs. Keisuke Kinoshita pulls off a brilliant trick by casting lookalike siblings, so you'd swear they'd waited half a decade in order to shoot five years later with the same kids. You can identify and remember every goblin face.
Takamine is magnificent, though. She's the viewpoint character of a 156-minute epic spanning two decades. Her character's transformation from beginning to end is remarkable. She'll make you cry.
It's possible to criticise the film's politics, or at any rate to discuss it. This isn't an aggressive film. It's not giving us a politically correct heroine who stamps all over historical authenticity in order to deliver the voice of hindsight. It doesn't attack Japan's war record, except to mourn the consequent deaths. It's a comforting film, keeping the evil offstage and allowing its Japanese audience to identify with someone who's the very essence of humanity. However I don't think any of that means the film isn't valuable. It feels truthful. It gives voice to those who were silent and it's brutally dismissive of military vainglory. "Aren't you going to cry because we lost?" Answer: don't be silly.
It's a beautiful film, even down to the painterly cinematography. Its cast feel as if they're part of Japan even visually. The last act perhaps has too much crying, but I can't deny that it's effective on an audience. This film won the Golden Globe for Best Foreign Film, beating The Seven Samurai, and even now its reputation is such that it's almost impossible to find the apparently rather good 1987 remake. Kinoshita's original simply overwhelms it. I can see why this film would be particularly powerful for a Japanese audience, but I'm not Japanese and I thought it was superb too.