Reviewed by 1. Wong Lung Hsiang 2. Sinnerman
Japanese Title: Nijushi no hitomi
Director: Kinoshita Keisuke
Writing Credits: Kinoshita Keisuke, Tsuboi Sakae (novel)
Cast: Goko Hideki, Takamine Hideko, Watanabe Yukio
Color: Black and White
Year Released: 1954
Runtime: 154 min
1. Review by Wong Lung Hsiang
Rating: **** (out of four stars)
It was with high expectations when I watched this 1954 antiwar classic, especially having seen the rather disappointing 1987 remake, Children of the Island. The Japanese title of the film remained the same for both films, and it literally means twenty-four eyes.
The story starts off around 1928, on an idyllic rural Japanese island, and centers around a newly recruited progressive school teacher, Miss Oichi. Initially the children's parents and her colleagues are concerned about her unconventional style, both in wearing Western clothes, addressing students by the nicknames rather than their surnames, and teaching traditional folk songs inside of the proscribed anthems. However, the students warm to her, and they play mischievous games and tricks on her. Unfortunately one of these pranks causes her to break a leg. The students decide to pay her a visit while she is recuperating at home. They do not realize how far they have to travel, and they lose their way, and start to cry. To their relief they meet up with the teacher near her home.
The story builds in emotional intensity as we follow the fate of the teacher and her students over the course of the next couple of decades. There is the looming militarism as World War II approaches, and the students, now in their adolescence, are recruited into the army, as is her husband. Gradually she loses both the boys as well as her own husband. As the war progresses, the island descends into further depression and poverty.
There is a haunting scene which takes place many years later, in which the teacher visits her sick student at her humble, bleak cabin. In the 1987 remake, it takes place on a stormy day, and both of them exchange information about the tragic fates of the classmates.
However, in the original version, this corresponding scene takes place on a sunny day, where some children are marching outside the cabin, accompanied by a patriotic tune. Through their exchange, we learn that some girls are actually living a better life, while the boys have yet to be enlisted. They will in the next scene, and only two of them survive the war, one of whom becomes blind. As a potential tear jerking scene, it remains exceptionally calm, until the later part when the sick student talks about her own ill fate, and to enhance the atmosphere, we hear the sounds of insects getting progressively louder. The camera then shows a close-up of the group photo of the teacher and the 12 students when they were in grade one, and scans each face. Instead of a direct antiwar protest, as in the remade version, this scene emphasizes the illusion of these children's early dreams.
Director Kinoshita, is known for his excellent choice of locations and beautifully photographed scenery (in the only other film of his that I have seen, Big Joys Small Sorrows , he brings us around to over 20 lighthouses all over Japan). In Twenty-Four Eyes, he demonstrates his strength of compositions in several scenes, such as the one featuring the 12 young students with their teacher. He seamlessly blends the breathtaking albeit degraded photo into the little island in Seto Inland Sea.
Two and a half hours, and I did not feel time passing by, such was the intensity of the film. I generally consider myself quite immune to crying while watching movies. But this film is one of those rare exceptions, where I welcome being manipulated by the film-maker. It is a film that everyone must watch.
2. Review by Sinnerman
Touted by many critics as the most tear jerking Japanese films of all time. Keisuke Kinoshita took his time to unveil the pathos buried within this exceptional work. Modern films almost never do that anymore.
It begins in happier times, and Twenty-Four Eyes was framed in mid to long-distance shots. One thus finds it hard to feel for any one individual. But this stylistic decision was purposeful, for it helped to first establish the idyllic tranquil of the movie's place and time; a small coastal town still untouched by the ravages of what's to come. In this universe, the folks led simple lives. Most of them were not yet calibrated by the country's rising tide of industrialized modernity. Most were not/ would not be ready to cope with its impending social upheavals.
Let's start with some chirpier ramblings first. This village was a place where excitement would rise on the sighting of bicycle riding women (the teacher, played by the luminous Hideko Hirayama), where even such slightest of stirs would rip through the grapevine. This is a very close knit community.
With broad simple strokes, Kinoshita also managed to paint a collective mood of contented joys and youthful idealism between the teacher and her first twelve students. Via episodic presentation of their communal activities, from light-hearted classroom chats, to jovial sing-a-long field trips, the bonds that bound these souls would help set in motion the melodramatic wheels of this unstoppably tear-jerking film.
By the film's halfway mark, Twenty-Four Eyes kicked up its dramatic gear. With an increasingly corresponded framing of closer proximity shots, illuminated faces were put onto the characters we once viewed from a distance. But the happy smiles were slowly wiped from these faces. There were changes in the country's indoctrinated campaign for militarism. There was incremental stifling of free thought, in a land bent on instilling fears and subservience. There were sickness and deaths amongst friends and families (some by the ravages of war, some not). Children were put up for adoption and families were literally uprooted by poverty. Students were giving up their studies for all sorts of reasons; family obligation, blindsided patriotism or just plain helplessness. Free spirited idealists (e.g., the teacher), would be pounded into submission by events beyond their control. Young girls who sacrificed their happiness for the love of their families were crushingly, not loved in return. Young boys were shipped off to war, full of misguided allegiance to country and glory, bearing false hopes of returning victorious.
How ironic then, that a generation of boys would die, never to become grown men, that girls would blossom into womanhood, only to discover their aspirations shackled by a patriarchal society. Those were all signs of the times.
By the closing chapters of this unbelievably melodramatic film, all the devices that could be used to wring tears out of its audience, had been exhausted. Its indeed a marvel how Kinoshita accomplished it all with such wild abandon. In fact, for those people who are easily put off by dated melodramas, you'd best be warned; people cried a lot in this sweeping weepie.
Twenty-Four Eyes is a great film in my eyes, despite no water flooding them. I have absolutely no qualms about why it was named the most tear jerking Japanese film of all time. For unapologetically, this film placed the hearts of the Japanese people firmly in its mind. Made and released in the early 50's, less than a decade after the trauma of World War II, Twenty-Four Eyes must have seared the still raw psychological wounds of its intended audience. Its subject matter and thematic content spoke to them; from children of the lost generation to the parents who had lost these children. From people who were once ravaged by poverty, sickness, war and loss, to people still imprisoned by these compounded disenchantments.
Viewed as a social document, Twenty-Four Eyes might thus have served as a balm to those still haunted by that recent past. With grateful tears, the audiences shared in the collective journey of this good-hearted movie. Assimilating with their own personal experiences, this cathartic tale might have helped in mending the hearts of millions. It might have gently coerced a kindred population of broken lives into finding their respective closures. When a film accomplish such a feat, it becomes more than a movie. It becomes a pure and humanistic work of art.