"The Karate Kid" was just a twinkle in Pat Morita's eye back in 1944. But Morita, one-time self-proclaimed "hip Nip" and "Happy Days" hash-slinger, has tapped into his heritage and World War II history to try a variation on the "Kid" theme.

"Captive Hearts," cowritten by Morita and producer John A. Kuri, plays like the karate movie's honorable ancestor meets "Sayonara." It's a rehash in which a golly-gee-whiz kid falls in love with a pure Oriental beauty and wises up under the guidance of a learned elder who looks like Yoda in a kimono.

Chris Makepeace, a scanty excuse for a leading man, costars as a young American airman named Robert, who is shot down over wartime Japan. Morita, in a bilingual role, plays the village elder Fukushima, who comes to the birdman's rescue just as the villagers are about to perform an axe-cution. In the days that follow, Robert befriends his enemies -- especially the pretty widow Miyoko -- with hard work and a good nature. But one of the local men becomes jealous of the affair, and the lovers are endangered.

This slip of a wartime romance-drama, with Canada's scenic Laurentian Mountains standing in for snow-blanketed northern Japan, introduces Japanese TV star Mari Sato as Miyoko, in her first English-language role. The sweet-faced Sato is charming given the predictability of her part -- one of those quiet, obedient characterizations that are western man's idea of eastern woman. Akira Kurosawa comes up with some cast-iron witches, plotting hoydens, tramps and tough gals. North Americans give us servile sake servers.

If Kurosawa had directed "Captive Hearts," he might even have made something of the sugary, brothers-beyond-boundaries scenario. And, of course, he'd have found symbol and significance in the landscape and blood and marrow in his stars. But he didn't and he wouldn't.

It is the well-meaning, weak-kneed work of director Paul Almond, primarily a maker of Canadian TV drama, who does manage to give this Canadian production a somewhat authentic look with help from Thomas Vamos, a Hungarian-born cinematographer. They take cinematic advantage of all that gorgeous Canadian geography. Alas, the leads are lost in all those woods, where we find the mild-mannered, mutually attracted Miyoko and Robert discreetly discussing life after death one day after a funeral. She refers to the teachings of Buddha. And he notes, "It is the same with our Christ." Seeing an opening here, he adds, "I don't want to do anything that is against your customs, but I think you are very beautiful."

It's not the greatest script -- stilted and simple-minded -- but then Makepeace, who last worked opposite Grace Jones in "Vamp," isn't the greatest actor, either. He looks like Mel Gibson all over again, but he hasn't got Gibson's gumption. He's umphless. He seems even more empty-headed opposite Morita's solid, if stale, variant on the sage Japanese.

Captive Hearts, at area theaters, is rated PG and contains no offensive material.