In the post-war film industry controlled in large part (though not totally) by the demands of American distributors and propagandists, Japanese audiences were peppered with a series of films that either functioned as thinly-veiled advertisements for Western culture or as indictments of the Japanese military and government. While these latter films were often white-washed (Kon Ichikawa’s “Fires on the Plain” is a distinct exception), there were few positive images of war-time Japan for audiences to grab hold of.
This vacuum in post-war film culture helps explain why “Twenty-Four Eyes” (1954) was such a big hit when released and remains one of the most popular films in Japan even today. The film shows the build-up to war and the war itself through the eyes of the residents of a rural island village: though a “war film” in its later stages, there are no battles and few soldiers here.
Beginning in 1928, Miss Oishi (Hideko Takamine) moves to this small village to begin teaching a class of first-graders. Oishi is a very modern woman who wears a sharp-looking suit and rides her bicycle to class. Big mistake. The provincial villagers (particularly the housewives) instantly judge her as a “modern woman” who thinks she’s too good for the common rabble. Oishi remains blissfully ignorant of her outsider status at first, instead throwing herself headlong into her new job, getting to know each all twelve of her young charges (these are the twenty-four eyes of the titles) very closely. To some parents, her personal questions indicate that the new teacher is playing favorites. Poor Miss Oishi can’t win no matter what she does.
But she gets two breaks in the film, one literal. As a result of a nasty prank played on her by her kids, she fractures her leg and is unable to teach. The kids feel guilty and in the film’s most memorable sequence they take a very long and very poorly-planned walk to her house to visit her. Oishi’s kind hospitality wins not only the love of her children but acceptance from the villagers. Everybody sings, and all is well.
Or it would be if not for the annoying fact that kids tend to grow older in direct correlation with the stubborn march of time. The film skips ahead another five years and Miss Oishi’s children are now in the sixth grade (apparently she continues to teach the same group of children as they move up in grade). Japan is in the grips of the same depression affecting the rest of the world, and many of the children, teetering on the brink of adolescence, are based with tough decisions. Some will get to continue school; others will be forced to work to support their families. They also begin to imagine what they want to be when they grow up. Miss Oishi blanches when all of her boys dream of becoming soldiers, but she has to censor herself because government officials are always lurking around the corner ready to label anyone who rocks the boat even a little bit as a “Red.”
The choices become even grimmer when the film leaps forwarding time once more. Boys playing soldier are now very young men playing soldier. A disillusioned Oishi has quit teaching to raise a family, but can never quite forget about her twelve precious students whose twenty-four eyes always stare back at her from a precious photograph taken the afternoon of their trip to her house. The idyllic village of the film’s opening has transformed in a colder landscape and the songs of the little boys and girls have given way to patriotic anthems extolling the glory of dying for country and emperor. The challenge now is not to change the course of history (too late for that) but to carve moments of meaning and happiness against the unfeeling backdrop of war.
Writer/director Keisuke Kinoshita, adapting a novel by Sakae Tsuboi, creates a film that is epic in scale but intimate in sensibility. He never leaves the village even when some of the boys leave for war. This is a story about how the waves of political and historical change crash on the shores of this rural island and leave damage in their wake. Kinoshita creates a sense of seamless continuity by several means. First, by maintaining the same location. Second, by the constant presence of Oishi and the pathos generated by the riveting performance of Hideko Takamine. Third, and perhaps most interestingly, by the meticulous casting process. In most cases, the sixth grade children are played by the real-life older siblings of the actors who play the first-graders. This required a large-scale search for pairs of siblings of the appropriate age who were about five years apart. In addition, several of the adult roles were filled by non-professional actors cast simply for their resemblance to the children.
“Twenty-four Eyes” is also a proud melodrama and a shameless tearjerker, powered in no small part by Takamine’s ability to cry at the drop of a hat. Her character’s tendency to burst out in tears at the slightest provocation earns her the nickname “Miss Crybaby” from one group of students. There’s nothing cheap about the sentiment here. Watching these kids grow up from first graders to adults at just about the worst time in recent Japanese history to be making that transition is sometimes painful to watch. Fate doesn’t always reward good behavior or punish the bad. It just doesn’t care. As William Blake wrote, “Some are born to sweet delight. Some are born to endless night.”
I cried a few times. You probably will too. That’s not the only reason that “Twenty-Four Eyes” is a good film, but it’s one perfectly valid one.
The film is presented in its original 1.33:1 aspect ratio. The image is picture-boxed liked most recent Criterion full screen releases. This restored transfer is fairly clean though some scratches fro the source print are still visible, and the picture looks perhaps a tiny bit soft compared to this studio’s usual high standard. Aside from that very minor complaint, this looks great.
The DVD is presented in Dolby Digital Mono. Optional English subtitles support the Japanese audio.
This is as close to bare bones as a Criterion release gets these days. The only extras are a 19-minute interview with film historian Tadao Sato which provides more information about the director than about the film and Theatrical Teasers.
The insert booklet offers an essay by film scholar Audie Bock and an excerpt from a 1955 interview with Kinoshita that originally appeared in an issue of the magazine “Kinema junpo.”
“Twenty-Four Eyes” is perhaps the strongest example of a distinct sub-genre of cinema: the inspiring teacher film, popular both in fiction and non-fiction. The usual American variant of this film involves a gung-ho attitude and a fire-and-brimstone lead performance (Morgan Freeman in “Lean on Me” or Edward James Olmos in “Stand and Deliver”), though Ryan Gosling’s exceptionally subtle and nuances turn as a badly flawed but still inspiring teacher in the grossly underappreciated “Half Nelson” (2006) marks a fascinating departure from the formula.
By contrast, Hideko Takamine’s portrayal of Miss Oishi is quiet and assured, though she is no less devoted to her students than baseball bat-wielding Principal Joe Clarke. Oishi isn’t simply trying to get her gets to pass a test, but to provide them a steadying influence for life. It’s an approach that doesn’t lend build to a simple, distinct climax but provides more subtle and satisfying rewards.