Locomotive Teacher [Kikansha Sensei] was one of the last films from Ryuichi Hiroki's golden period I had yet to see. Expectations were quite moderate to be honest, but it didn't take very long before I was completely immersed in the adventures of the mute teacher. My advise: pick a nice and quite moment, sit back, prepare to relax and let yourself be swept away by one of Hiroki's most laziest and laid-back films to date.
Between 2003 and 2008 Hiroki's work really thrived, with films like M, Love On Sunday - Last Words, Kimi no Tomodachi, New Type and Girlfriend: Please Stop The World upholding a very high level of quality. It's not that he didn't make any good films after that (there's Keibetsu), but it's clear that Hiroki's been struggling together with most other Japanese drama directors out there, releasing a couple of films (namely Yomei 1-Kagetsu no Hanayome and Raio) that are clearly below his capabilities.
Locomotive Teacher feels a lot more like a true vintage Hiroki, even when the main character isn't female and the dramatic impulses are a lot less edgy than in his more recent work. The film plays like a mix between Ogigami's Megane and Hiroki's own Koi Suru Nichiyobi, a cinematic vacation that allows for a nice breather. A rare time out from all the action, drama, comedy and audiovisual or intellectual stimulation most films aim to deliver.
Yoshioka Seigo is a mute teacher who's on the brink of giving up his teaching job. His inability to speak is too much of a burden and official authorities don't really like him teaching kids. He gets one last opportunity to teach a small class on the island his mother grew up on, which he accepts, if only to revisit his mother's past. The children on the island take to Seigo right away (calling him Locomotive Teacher because of his impressive stature), but the adults aren't as keen to let an outsider into their little commune.
Visually Locomotive Teacher is a solid film, drawing a lot from its idyllic surroundings. The islands, the sea, the sunny weather and the rural atmosphere all add to the soft, soothing visuals. Evidently the screen is mostly dominated by blues and greens as most scenes are filmed outside. Hiroki's camera work is nice enough but doesn't demand too much attention. Except a short but impressive running scene near the end of the film, it resides in the background, never intruding on the overall atmosphere.
The music is pretty generic, at times a little overblown even, but for the most part it is extremely functional. If you've seen a couple of Japanese dramas you can probably dream up the soundtrack yourself, a combination of piano and string tracks that trickle along in the background without a real sense of urgency. But apart from a few false notes the soundtrack works well and helps to further flesh out the film's laid-back atmosphere.
Kenji Sakaguchi (who looks just a little like Takeshi Kaneshiro) does a pretty good job as Seigo, but it's the small group of island children that are the real stars of the film. Working with kids is never easy, yet Hiroki has an obvious knack for making his actors feel at ease. The children are really great, a group of care-free, happy youngsters wrapped up in their own little world, facing a selection of minor (and some larger) issues.
The second hour is a bit more focused on drama than the first, as Hiroki expands on some of the threads he introduced in the beginning of the film. I didn't think it was all that necessary as I was happy enough to follow the group of kids and their interaction with Seigo, but I assume most people will appreciate the slightly tighter focus on story elements. Hiroki doesn't go overboard though and once everything is wrapped up there's still plenty of time left for a warm and pleasant finale.
Locomotive Teacher is a perfect breather of a film. While it's not void of drama, the beauty of the film does not lie in the events or the story. Instead I became transfixed by the soothing island atmosphere, the laid-back pacing and the nice surroundings. It's like a little couch vacation, a quick trip to the other side of the world while leaving all your worries behind for 120 minutes. Locomotive Teacher is not an all-time classic, but it sure is an accomplished film with its heart in the right place. Perfect spring/summer material.