In the last decade or two, interspersed between regular "Otoko" editions, Yamada has been turning out more "serious," "socially conscious" films like The Yellow Handkerchief of Happiness ("Shiawase no kiiroi hankachi," 1977) and My Sons ("Musuko," 1991) to critical acclaim. His A Class to Remember ("Gakko," 1993) in fact won many of the major Japanese film awards for 1993.
Playing off that film's success, Yamada has now churned out A Class to Remember II. Not exactly a sequel, it shares the last movie's situation and lead actor, but with a different location and cast of characters. A Class to Remember featured the jolly Nishida Toshiyuki as a dedicated teacher at a Tokyo night school, but the sequel sports him as an (equally dedicated) instructor at a Hokkaido school for the mentally and physically challenged.
Ryuhei (Nishida) and his colleagues, the seasoned teacher Reiko (Ishida Ayumi) and the neophyte Daisuke (Nagase Masatoshi), have their hands full trying to educate charges who, as if their disabilities were not enough, cannot seem to succeed in a world that has already written them off.
Bullies force Takashi (Yoshioka Hidetaka) to retreat into a shell and Yuya (Kanbe Hiroshi) only relates to others through violent outbursts. As is de rigeur in a Yamada film, however, human goodness sparks miracles. Takashi and Yuya, supported by the faculty, help each other overcome their problems. Even when the two abscond to see a Amuro Namie concert without permission (the film's framing incident), that just provides the occasion for more laughter, tears, and down-home communal warmth.
Both films offer Yamada the opportunity to address the burning issue of education in Japan. Nishida's dialogue broaches some of these dilemmas, but little he mentions is ever visualized on screen. You could almost say this is a social problem film without a problem.
Bullying, for instance, the pressing issue of our day, is mentioned in the film, but never seen. Visualizing it would seem to sully Yamada's pristine vision. While some characters may suffer the usual human foibles, no one in A Class to Remember II is cruel, or power-hungry, or coldly calculating. Everyone is basically good deep down inside.
It is this utopian vision that made the Tora-san movies delightful. Having no pretense to represent reality, they offered us a superior world to fantasize about. But by proposing to depict a troubled reality without ever showing it, A Class to Remember II is an utter failure as social problem film. Instead of being called to action, audiences just leave the theater with a teary-eyed glow, reassured that all of humanity is good, that reality is already utopia. Yamada's vision is deeply conservative, still producing communal portraits in the 1950s Shochiku-style, but without the brilliant irony of its best practitioners like Kinoshita Keisuke.
Wallowing in a feel-good humanism focused on individuals, his films bypass the truly frightening stories of institutional power, structural corruption, and oppression by the community.
In the end, Yamada is woefully old fashioned. His Up With People world is like Father Knows Best without the retro camp, a Reagan-Bush utopia of fifties suburbia transplanted to shitamachi Japan. That's too bad, given the evident talent of Yamada and his actors, but this is a world that should have ended with its era.
Reviewed by Aaron Gerowonogerow@gorilla.or.jp
Originally appeared in The Daily Yomiuri, 3 October 1996, p. 9.
Copyright 1996: The Daily Yomiuri and Aaron Gerow