As wholesome as fresh milk, “Silver Spoon” centers on a pack of individualistic youngsters who attend a vocational high school for dairy farming in Hokkaido, northern Japan. Not your average youth film about sports, first love or superheroes, this pleasant pic offers an uncommon glimpse into modern agricultural practices while teaching respect for the food chain. Adapted from the bestselling manga by Hiromu Arakawa, it is smoothly if unadventurously helmed by Keisuke Yoshida and brightened by a likable teen cast. It’s ideal material for educational screening events and could target tween auds in Asian markets.
Arakawa (who also penned the huge hit “Fullmetal Alchemist”), actually has farming roots and attended an agricultural school in Hokkaido on which the setting of “Silver Spoon” is based. Her experience lends authenticity to the fiction, underscoring the rugged pride of country folk as well as the economic difficulties they constantly face. Yoshida’s adaptation plays it safe with the original’s storyline and spirit, delivering solid, feel-good drama, but it could have done with a dollop of the quirky humor he injected into his “Cafe Isobe” (2008).
Like the manga (and the TV anime spinoff), the yarn is told from the perspective of city boy Yugo Hachiken (Kento Nakajima), who enrolls in Ooezou (aka Yezo) Agricultural School in Hokkaido’s Tokachi, a major dairy-producing region. Initially, drama arises from the clashing attitudes of Hachiken, who picked this far-flung school just to avoid his parents, and his classmates, who chose this vocation in order to inherit their family farms. The film also milks some droll humor from the school’s curriculum (which involves waking up at 4 a.m., jogging around the 20-kilometer campus, getting up close and personal with the cows and collecting horse dung), which the hardy country kids take for granted, but which feels like boot camp for wimpy Hachiken. His internship at the farm of classmate Aki Mikage (Alice Hirose) reveals the back-breaking work as well as the impressive modern technology that go into running such an operation.
However, the story’s core values are expressed in Hachiken’s deepening attachment to a baby pig he names Buta-don (“pork rice bowl”). Although his classmate Ichiro Komaba (Tomohiro Ichikawa) jeers at his hypocritical sentimentality over an “animal of economy,” Hachiken struggles to accept that the pig is destined for slaughter; how he eventually deals with this not only signifies a bittersweet coming-of-age, but also advocates a posture of humility toward the ecosystem. While other subjects in the film are represented in a by-the-numbers manner reminiscent of TV drama, this particular episode delivers an unflinching look at the realities of food production and trumps Tetsu Maeda’s “School Days With a Pig” (2008), a much talkier, more tearjerking treatment of the same theme.
The original manga cultivated an ensemble of independent-minded characters, whose diverse home backgrounds and career aspirations formed a colorful mural of country life that critiqued such Japanese youth norms as cram schools and cyber-addiction. Given the film’s need to condense such a long story, Yoshida and co-scribe Ryo Takada have simplified the students relationships, concentrating on Hachigen’s friendship with Mikage, as well as his amiable rivalry with Komaba. With fewer of the lively shenanigans provided by the supporting cast, the film gets a tad heavy toward the end, but Nakajima and Hirose express their slow-blossoming love with a feather-light touch, whereas Ichikawa limns Komaba’s abrupt entry into the tough realities of the adult world with dignity and pride.
Shido Nakamura and Kazue Fukiishi are both striking as teachers who nonetheless have no real narrative function. The only thesp who sticks out like a sore thumb is Haru Kuroki (winner of the actress award at the Berlinale for “The Little House”), who plays Mikage’s childhood friend/antagonist with so much affectation she becomes a monstrous caricature.
While the meaning of the silver spoon that’s framed and hung outside the school canteen is withheld until quite late in the manga, it’s disclosed fairly early on in the film, to rather diminished impact. Tech credits are pro, especially Takayuki Shida’s well-composed lensing, which captures the stark beauty of Hokkaido’s wide-open, northern landscapes while also offering kooky shots of various animals.