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  • U
  • Drama
  • 1954
  • 155 mins

Twenty-Four Eyes

Twenty-Four Eyes

Synopsis

In Keisuke Kinoshita's popular tearjerker, award-winning actress Hideko Takamine is a teacher who wins her pupils' hearts, if not minds, during a tumultuous period of Japanese history

About

1954 was a landmark year in the history of Japanese cinema, seeing in such classics as Akira Kurosawa's Seven Samurai, Mikio Naruse's Late Chrysanthemums and Kenji Mizoguchi's Sansho The Bailiff and The Crucified Woman.

However, the release which would win that year's national critics' prize for best film (as well as the 1955 Golden Globe for Best Foreign Film), was Kinoshita's Twenty-Four Eyes (Nijushi No Hitomi), the saga of a modern teacher's lasting relationship with her first 12 pupils (hence the title) during a period that encompassed the poverty of the Great Depression, and the disaster of the Second World War.

In 1928, the same year that universal suffrage was introduced to Japan, replacement teacher Hisako Oishi (Takamine) breezes into her new job at a village primary school on Shodo Island, where her bicycle-riding, her Western suit, and her informality in the classroom, all rouse the suspicions of colleagues and parents, while winning over her six-year-old pupils.

Injured in a prank gone wrong, Oishi transfers to a post in the Consolidated School, closer to her home. Five years later, now married and pregnant, Oishi finds herself teaching the same pupils again; but depressed by the rise of militarism and repression, and silenced by the schoolmaster from any discussion of politics, she quits teaching altogether. As Japan's Pacific War broadens, Oishi keeps up with the tragedies of her former pupils, and suffers many of her own, before finally, after Japan's surrender, she returns to teaching and is invited to a reunion in her honour by the survivors from her old class.

Adapted from Sakae Tsuboi's 1952 novel, Twenty-Four Eyes arrived at a time when Japan was still reeling from its wartime suffering and shame, yet already beginning the process of renewal. The film brilliantly captures this prevailing mood of sorrow for the past, and hope for the future. Little wonder, then, that it should have won the hearts of its contemporary Japanese viewership. Perhaps much more surprising is that a film so much of its time, and so unfashionably sentimental by today's standards, should still be included as late as 1999 in a list of top 10 favourites compiled by Japanese critics.

When Oishi returns to teaching after the war, her readiness to weep earns her the new nickname 'Miss Crybaby', and there will be many who feel that by this point the film might similarly have been re-dubbed 'Twenty-Four Tear Ducts'. Its second half seems to be entirely devoted to scenes in which Oishi and her pupils meet and weep together, no doubt offering a cathartic outlet for Kinoshita's immediate post-war audience, well attuned to grief and woe, but excessive in its maudlin melodrama for viewers from later times.

Oishi is a humanist and a pacifist. In her first year as a teacher she confines a portrait of the Emperor to the classroom cupboard, and later she attempts to discourage the boys in her class from enlisting; but after another teacher is arrested for publishing an anti-war pamphlet, and Oishi is warned to desist from any further discussion of politics, her tears become the only permissible expression of protest left to her. The near continuous torrents that follow render all the more remarkable Oishi's outright refusal to cry at the news of Japan's 1945 surrender. As a political response, this sob-free silence is deafening, and registers, however passively, the (necessarily) quiet opposition of so many ordinary Japanese to their nation's belligerence.

The passage of time in Twenty-Four Eyes is occasionally punctuated by a recurring text that reads: "The colour of the sea and the shape of the mountains stayed the same, but tomorrow became today."

In keeping with this lyrical reflection on change and stasis, the film presents a dynamic contrast between the irrevocable momentum of events and their consequences, and the rhythmic cycles of life. In her first year on Shodo, Oishi witnesses the devastating force of the island's winds, only to be told that Septembers are "always like this".

Set against this world where destruction and recovery endlessly repeat themselves according to seasonal patterns, the ravages of the Depression and the Second World War are seen as cataclysmic storms which, for all their power to ruin lives forever, must inevitably give way to a period of calmer waters, until the whole process starts up again.

Accordingly the film ends, 18 years after it began, with Oishi right back where she started, once again cycling to her new job as teacher, and facing the hopes and promises of a new generation, while herself so transformed by circumstance, memory and experience that she has lost the optimism and joy of her own youth. And so this harrowing tearjerker of a film ends on an aptly bittersweet note.

Cast & Connections

  • Actor: Ushio Akashi, Toshiyuke Yashiro, Toshiko Kobayashi, Hideyo Amamoto, Shizue Natsukawa, Hideko Takamine, Chishu Ryu
  • Director: Keisuke Kinoshita
  • Screen Writer: Keisuke Kinoshita
  • Writer (Book): Sakae Tsuboi
  • Producer: Ryotaro Kuwata
  • Photographer: Hiroyuki Kusuda
  • Composer: Chuji Kinoshita

In a nutshell

A leisurely, lyrical reflection on time, tragedy and memory - even if twenty-four eyes make for a bit too much weeping.

by Anton Bitel

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