"MacArthur's Children," a 1983 Japanese movie about the aftermath of World War II, could not have arrived at a better time -- the 40th anniversary of Japan's surrender. Directed by the industrious Masahiro Shinoda (20 films since 1960), with a cast made up largely of charming child actors, the movie grapples on a human scale with many of the Japanese-American issues currently enjoying public attention. And though it wanders, and occasionally dawdles, over too much ground, it has enough heart and humor to make the traipse worthwhile.

The movie is set far from the conflagration on the Japanese mainland, in a cozy island community, where schoolchildren must cope with the pain of their country's inglorious defeat and the shame of occupation by Yankee conquerors. They must also face an even greater consequence of the war -- the relentless avalanche of American culture.

"Japan is under occupation -- but our souls are not under occupation," the young teacher, Komako, admonishes her class as victorious GIs steam into the harbor, "The Star-Spangled Banner" blaring from their landing craft.

Like many images in "MacArthur's Children," this one resonates with irony -- not only because Komako, a presumed war widow, has just been sexually "occupied" by her missing husband's ne'er-do-well brother, but also because the soul of all Japan is about to undergo a cultural occupation from which it will never recover.

After some introductory newsreel footage of Hiroshima in ruins and Gen. MacArthur at the surrender ceremony aboard the battleship Missouri, the story begins, indelibly, with school boys, bent over their textbooks, inking out all references to past imperial glories, blotting them from the memory of postwar Japan. The movie ends with an equally affecting scene: the same class, learning English, repeating in halting cadences, "I am an American boy."

There is quite a lot in between, both tearful and funny, all of it nicely acted, especially by a prickly young man named Yoshiyuki Omori as a would-be champion against the invaders. He has the commanding presence of a 10-year-old Toshiro Mifune. But much of this movie could probably fit into separate films about the birth of modern Japanese industrial might, the difficult marital readjustment of a returning soldier, the depravity of drug addiction, the awakening of preteen sexuality and the adventures of a spunky kids' baseball club -- this last to be titled "The Bad News Banzai."

Containing such Hollywood influences, "MacArthur's Children" is itself a result of the American invasion. The screenplay by Takeshi Tamura, based on a novel by Yu Aku, tries to be so comprehensive that it jumps around its themes like the proverbial chicken. You wish the movie would linger over just one of them and bring it into dramatic focus. Still, a minute seldom goes by in this 115-minute film without some telling observation.

Handling his bitter subjects with a butterfly touch, director Shinoda is especially deft at evoking the Japanese people's dance between the twin imperatives of saving face and capitulating to one's conquerors. In one scene, the island authorities assemble to welcome the occupation force, but a festive banner unfurled for the occasion must be hastily pulled down: "TOGETHER WE'LL WIN THE WAR," it says. In another, more poignant welcoming scene, the townspeople and their battle-weary young men are shown weeping uncontrollably on the dock.

The movie on this score is admirably even-handed: American soldiers are people, too. They may trample into people's homes without taking off their boots, drive their jeeps through religious shrines, but they are not the inhuman barbarians of yore. In one comic moment, a boy hurls a mortal challenge at a group of passing GIs -- at which the Americans smile broadly and wave. Their greeting, like their culture, is hard to resist.MacArthur's Children, at the Key, in Japanese with English subtitles, is rated PG and contains sexual situations.