Twenty-Four Eyes Review
During the 40s and 50s a recovering Japan was making cinematic waves in the aftermath of its most tragic moment in history; Its positive outlook to all things ensured that the country would do all it can to see some things never be repeated again. But with that came several voices who saw fit to address certain authorities with contempt. Directors such as Kon Ichikawa and Kaneto Shindo were taking the cinematic art form beyond what was to be expected, highlighting the hardships of the everyday worker in a post war country and examining the cruel realities of war. With these themes also came social issues that would be hammered home on film, if it was the only means to get the message across. This is where director Keisuke Kinoshita comes in to play. His distaste for Japan’s lack of enthusiasm in providing females with higher ground opportunities was clearly evident, and none more so perhaps than in Twenty-Four Eyes, his most successful film. Japan was still somewhat living in the middle ages, and indeed its attitudes would have to change at some point.
Based upon Sakae Tsuboi’s “Nijushi no Hitomi” Twenty-Four Eyes takes place on Japan’s second largest inland sea island, Shodoshima and spans eighteen years in the life of a school teacher and her pupils. Hisako Oishi (Hideko Takamine) rides into town on her bicycle, wearing modern style clothing. Immediately it sparks a reaction from the locals, who see her as being not quite right for the position of new first grade teacher. When Hisako arrives she is greeted by twelve children, who she soon gets to know on a nick-name basis. However she begins to teach them in her own modern way that sees the school baffled by her unorthodox methods, which soon fuels rumours that she’s a communist. Soon her beloved job begins to take its toll as rules are set and freedom of speech is prohibited within the education system. As the years go by she and her pupils will make drastic decisions and face hardships in the face of defeat, but they have each other for support and perhaps one day a time of relief will come.
Much like Kaneto Shindo’s later effort The Naked Island, Twenty-Four Eyes instils itself with isolation, charting the lives of a small community on an island that’s far removed from bustling city life, such as Osaka and Kobe, which gets a few mentions throughout. The people of Shodoshima are folk who lead simple lives, who don’t always have the luxury of sitting back to take a rest, but pour sweat and blood in their everyday work; even a changing Japan is foreign to them and all it takes is one strong willed woman to change certain outlooks and ideals. The film projects a strikingly similar rhythm, up to its middle act that faces Japan’s depression to the moments where tragedy ultimately strikes. Of course this precedes The Naked Island by six years, but it’s clear that at this point directors were experimenting with new ways of illustrating their feelings, not only in terms of visualisation but also musically. Twenty-Four Eyes is ultimately about change, the inevitability that things cannot stay the way we would like them, that we cannot freeze a particular moment in time, save for a photograph that conjures memories of a life that was for just one day perfect.
Kinoshita isn’t exactly subtle in pin pointing his targets; it’s quite clear that he’s killing two birds with one stone: not only is the Japanese education system getting a battering, but so too is the way in which women have always been treated up to a certain period. The 50s was a turning point; modern values and western ideas were traversing from overseas and women were taking on bigger challenges for themselves. Miss Oishi is the embodiment of this, a young and head-strong teacher who sees no need for hush attitudes. She goes to work everyday wearing a western style suit (made from an old kimono we learn), and she rides a bicycle which most of the island people have never even seen up close – Oishi is the changing face of Japan, and no amount of dodging will change the fact that the proud country will ultimately have to rethink some of its clauses. It’s in her teachings that the instable, paranoid and fearful country expresses its concerns, predominantly over communism, capitalism and labouring – all things that Oishi’s students have at one point asked about, to which she’s all too happily explained, but as a single voice in a time where the country had yet to be violently shaken can she make any difference?
As the years go on the depression, brought on soon after the Shanghai and Manchurian incidents suddenly changes perceptions. Director Kinoshita continues the journey with Oishi and her adoring pupils. Joy and sorrow permeate the picture as we learn of each child’s place in the world. Some things are uncertain and yet their status in life dictates how their future will be. Oishi tries to tell her children that they make their own destiny and yet it’s already been bullied into them that they will follow convention and join the army or become wives. But some of the children break away from the mould, conveying their true emotions at wanting to study music, or learning to be midwives. This isn’t so simple for everyone, the poorer classes are forced to leave school at an early age to take care of ailing families, while some move away or become adopted because their family can no longer support them. Kinoshita cares greatly for their plight as he becomes the voice for intolerance throughout, and while we feel that he’d love to end everything on a happy note he’s forced into showing us a sad reality. Soon the film jumps forward eight years, leading up to August 15th 1945 – the day on which Japan surrendered and accepted the Potsdam Declaration.
Kinoshita could certainly be referred to as one of the masters of sentimentality. While his tale isn’t particularly preachy it’s astute when it comes to pushing our emotional buttons. The bond that he so masterfully forms between Oishi and the children serves as our main point of axis, and there’s a deep need to wring out the viewers eyes through a series of joyous and tragic moments. His brother and composer Chuji Kinoshita accompanies each important moment with forced cues; there’s rarely an opportunity to take in a scene that’s being well acted without the ever present likes of “Auld Lang Syne” or the sounds of children singing in harmony taking over. While I could argue its heavy handed approach it still works in forming a clear connection, not only between Oishi and the children but the viewer also, ultimately getting out of us exactly what he wants. But his saving grace is in that he does get us to know these people on a very personal basis; their eyes being in relation to the film’s title providing that extra emphasis of the souls that she ultimately fell in love with. As they grow the inevitable tragedies that strike resonate as well as one could hope and it’s hard not to become victim to the director’s approach in signifying drastic and poignant changes. Of course the director has a lot of ground to cover and while some moments are formed with a strong sense of pacing, others are almost too hard to handle. Toward the end of the film Kinoshita rattles us with a shell bomb that sees two deaths within the space of ten minutes, with one of those deaths feeling a trite unnecessary and certainly one which could be deemed as just a gratuitous hanky moment.
Still, there’s no doubting Kinoshita’s skill; his attention to detail and his use of tracking shots are sublime. The introduction to Shodoshima is beautifully composed, slow and charming, while the moments shared between Oishi and the children are often filled with vitality. But Kinoshita also infuses several metaphors. At one point Oishi, her face sullen and eyes dry, looks out of her home where rain pours onto the garden, as if to signify that the island is crying for her. Kinoshita uses this device on more than one occasion; the film uses rain and its changing season to fuel various emotions throughout. The director conveys his themes with solid camera work from Hiroyuki Kosuda to present a thing of beauty which surely deserves all the praise in the world.
Kinoshita favourite, Hideko Takamine puts in a splendid performance as Miss Oishi, while these various children are simply marvels . It’s because of the acting that Kinoshita gets away with a lot; here he’s plucked twelve locals from obscurity, each one with no acting training and turns them into some of the most adorable children seen on screen. As they grow we see new faces, five years on, and then eight years from there, yet remarkably the director remains so consistent with his casting choices that’s it’s almost impossible to believe that these aren’t the same children all grown up. Its approach feels like that of a documentary, where the witnessing of these children becoming mature adults is a wholly real affair. The key is in believing what we’re seeing and as long as Kinoshita holds those reigns there’s never a single doubt in our minds.
#18 in Eureka’s Masters of Cinema series, Twenty-Four Eyes comes packaged in another attractive DVD release. A twenty page booklet, featuring an essay by author and professor Joan Mellen accompanies the disc.
Twenty-Four Eyes is presented in its original aspect ratio of 1.33:1. This has been sourced from a new, progressive high-definition transfer by Shochiku. Some very noticeable Edge Enhancement troubles this a little, otherwise the image is very stable with black levels and contrast appearing considerably well. The image showcases a fair amount of tramlines and scratches, though it appears an effort has been made to reduce these and they don’t come across as being distracting. For a film just over fifty-years old this looks quite remarkable.
The sound here is functional, coming from the original mono mix. Dialogue is always clear, while portions of the score suffer from a little crackling and hissing. Sound effects are ambient enough, but there’s not much more to expect from this. It does the job well and it’s original as intended so no complaints here. I cannot fault its inherent problems which have nothing to do with the DVD authoring.
English subtitles are optional and there are no faults to report.
A little light in comparison to some of Eureka’s past releases, the DVD comes only with a gallery featuring sixty-five stills. Nonetheless these are impressive, highly detailed photos that are well worth a look.
Twenty-Four Eyes is another wonderful gem from Japan’s early post-war period, one that has been far too overlooked in the west. Filled with many joys and sorrows you can be sure it’ll jerk more than a few tears. Eureka has yet again done a fine job in presenting such a rarity on a great disc.