A changing Japan seen through youthful eyes

``MacArthur's Children'' doesn't sound like a Japanese movie title until you realize who MacArthur is: the American general who presided over the occupation of Japan after World War II. He's not a character in Masahiro Shinoda's new film, but his ``children'' are. They're the young, impressionable Japanese who found their lives turned upside-down by events and influences they never dreamed of.

In production notes for the picture, director Shinoda recalls his own confusion as a Nationalist boy -- ``willing to die for my Emperor'' -- after his country lost the war. Children learned how to commit hara-kiri in the school gym, he reports, and then trooped to a classroom for lessons on Confucius, who preached against harming one's body.

It was in this weird atmosphere that Shinoda heard the siren song of American jazz -- especially ``In the Mood,'' played by Glenn Miller's band. It became a theme song of the occupation, as much a part of the GI presence as jeeps and uniforms. It hit the boy's imagination with full force, promising excitement and new possibilities. Suddenly his own society seemed dull and ignorant. ``My heart was snared,'' he says, by an America he barely comprehended.

``MacArthur's Children'' is a look back at that difficult, disorienting time. Based on a Yu Aku novel, the story centers on a Japanese teacher who helps her fifth-graders learn baseball, hoping this will somehow ease their passage into the new order that's painfully being born. Subplots explore other themes -- some particular to the movie's time and place, and others that crop up universally in tales about kids coming of age.

The action is not tied up very well, and the story gets scattered as it strains to embrace all kinds of plot twists, mood swings, and character details. The performing styles are uneven, too, making a film that's jumpy by nature seem downright disconnected at times.

The subject is a stirring one, though, and there are electric moments as an ancient culture squirms in confrontation with a way of life it's utterly unprepared for. Shinoda made an inspired choice when he decided to examine this complex Japanese period through the eyes of youngsters -- who feel change most profoundly while adapting to it most deeply. The Makioka Sisters

A more familiar style of Japanese filmmaking marks the season's other Asian import, ``The Makioka Sisters,'' by veteran director Kon Ichikawa.

This time the setting is pre-World War II, but again the subject is change vs. tradition in a society that has known both concepts intimately. The main characters are four sisters from a well-to-do merchant family. As social changes make subtle inroads on the security and privilege that have long sheltered them, each woman finds her own way of coping. Some of their decisions reflect conservatism and compromise; others are more radical and unsettling.

``The Makioka Sisters'' moves at a gentle pace and often chooses pictorialism over dramatic impact. As storytelling, the result is low-key and leisurely. As a visual experience, though, it's sumptuous. Combining ageless Japanese imagery with modern cinematic rhythms, Ichikawa fills the eye with delicate visions and unexpected contrasts.

It's mildly surprising to find this sometimes provocative director in a mood so subdued that it suggests the fragile family dramas of Yasujiro Ozu, who has been called the most Japanese of Japanese filmmakers. Yet he handles his material with a skill born of long experience. Based on a Junichiro Tanizaki novel, ``The Makioka Sisters'' is a most imposing Asian visitor.

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