Perhaps nothing illustrates better the kind of standing Kinoshita Keisuke’s Twenty-Four Eyes (Nijûshi no hitomi) holds in Japan than the fact that it beat out, among others, films such as Kurosawa Akira’s Seven Samurai and Mizoguchi Kenji’s Sansho the Bailiff, both of which are held in considerably higher esteem in the West, to win the 1954 award for Best Film from the prestigious Kinema Junpo magazine, the Japanese equivalent of the French Cahiers du cinéma or the British Sight & Sound. The film continues to be regarded in its homeland as an extremely important work of the period, in that it helped in healing the wounds of the war and the resulting occupation. It’s hard to think of a similarly relevant American film, but this movie is as much of a classic for the Japanese as Casablanca (1942) or Vertigo (1958) are for the Americans.
One of the most prolific filmmakers of his generation (one that became active during or right after the war), Kinoshita (1912-1998), who also enjoys a prominent place locally, made nearly 50 films in a variety of genres and styles. He was much more experimental in his approach than what he’s generally given credit for. What remained consistent, however, especially in some of his most beloved films, Twenty-Four Eyes chief among them, was a certain nourishment of the cultural ideals of purity and innocence. Though he’s still not as well known a figure in the West as Kurosawa, his generational counterpart, or earlier masters such as Mizoguchi or Ozu Yasujirô, the success of this film and the 1958 The Ballad of Narayama has undoubtedly made the audiences more aware of the peculiar power and beauty of his work
Set in a poor fishing village on the island of Shôdoshima, the birthplace of the film’s source novelist, Tsuboi Sakae, the film unfolds over an 18-year span, starting in 1928. It opens with the sight of a dozen first-graders (the eponymous “eyes”) encountering their ostensibly modern new teacher on her bike on the way to school. Exquisitely essayed by the great Takamine Hideko, whose popularity grew even further thanks to the overwhelming response to this film, the bright and headstrong Miss Ôishi ends up drawing some attention due to her western attire and unorthodox teaching methods. It turns out, however, that her suit was made from an old kimono, thus symbolizing her regard for traditions despite her novel appearance. It only takes her a short period to win the hearts and minds of her young pupils and their parents alike.
At once epic and intimate, Twenty-Four Eyes deploys a thoroughly humanistic approach in dealing with the effects of the turbulent period—first the Great Depression, then the country’s ever-increasing imperialist ideology, and ultimately the war itself. The girls in Ôishi’s class suffer throughout due to the various burdens they have to bear at home (author Tsuboi is clearly very sympathetic to the plight of her female characters and has emphasized the sacrifices they have to make in order to preserve their families), and the boys are eventually asked to lay their lives on the line for the country’s aggressive war efforts. Thus, the hopes and ideals of those who at one point seemed to be beyond it all are shattered one by one. In the meantime, Ôishi offers as much moral and spiritual support as possible to the kids, but she cannot alone fight the oppressive system. Kinoshita underlines Ôishi’s pacifist stance by having her quietly resign from her post, not to mention by placing an emphasis on folk songs and nursery rhymes instead of official patriotic jingles in her teachings; she even restrains her own young son from singing one during wartime.
Kinoshita—whose 1951 Takamine starrer, Carmen Comes Home, was Japan’s first full-length motion picture in color—was considered quite proficient at melodrama, and it’s not hard to see why. But the more subtle moments, such as the surprise encounter Ôishi has with a former pupil, who is now forced to work in the neighboring town, register just as strongly. Meanwhile, Kinoshita’s open mise-en-scène and strikingly eloquent compositions make sure the emotional toll doesn’t become too overbearing (and so does his editing, even though the film runs 156 minutes). Special note must also be made of the casting: the kids, shown at three different periods in their lives, are remarkably believable as individuals. A lyrical and profoundly moving piece of work, Twenty-Four Eyes is fully deserving of its place in Japanese cinema history.