The protagonist is Hisako Oishi, a young teacher assigned to an elementary school on the Inland Sea island of Shodoshima, which is populated by farmers, fishers, and other hard-working folks. The locals are suspicious when she first arrives, wondering why she rides a bike instead of walking and wears a dress instead of a kimono. The children love her, though, and when she speaks with her mother at home we learn that she isn't showing off modern ways - she simply lives too far from school to walk, and her bike is hard to ride in traditional clothes. The parents eventually figure this out too, and life continues smoothly.
Until it doesn't, and this is when Twenty-Four Eyes gets really interesting. Arriving at school one day, Hisako finds the principal in a tizzy over a teacher who's been arrested for giving communist essays to his pupils. When she hears the title of the offending book, Hisako responds that it's a very good book, the essays aren't subversive, and she's used it successfully in her own classes. The principal's tizzy intensifies, and he burns the forbidden pages while begging her not to say such dangerous things. Even in a rural elementary school, it turns out, you can't get away from politics.
The flap over the essay book bothers Hisako, but she adjusts to the situation and goes on nurturing her pupils, pretty much untouched by the Great Depression and other events in the larger world. Things change when World War II brings a flood of military cheerleading and a swelling call for young men to fight and die for their country. Politics aside, Hisako is appalled at the waste of young lives on the battlefield - according to Japanese film scholar Audie Bock, the draft age in Japan fell as low as fourteen as the war proceeded - and decides to quit teaching rather than see her beloved students return to the island in the 1940s equivalent of body bags. She stays out of the profession for years, coming back only when the war is over and she knows her services are truly needed.
The title of Twenty-Four Eyes refers to the bright, curious eyes of Hisako's first twelve pupils, and the story focuses almost entirely on her relationships at school, sometimes dropping in on students' families as well. We see little of her at home except in occasional domestic scenes. She converses at times with her mother, who seems to be a traditional yet open-minded woman, and she candidly discusses sensitive issues with her children, standing up for her antiwar stance even when her son starts thinking she may be a coward.
Kinoshita's reticence about Hisako's domestic life has the beneficial effect of staving off sentimentality in potentially melodramatic scenes. We've caught only brief glimpses of her husband, whose job on a tourist boat keeps him largely away from home, so it's hard to mourn very much when he is killed in combat; the same goes when her daughter dies after a fall while climbing a tree. Although it's rich in strong feelings and contains a few tear-jerking episodes, the picture rarely becomes the out-and-out weepie it might have been in the hands of a less judicious director. Kinoshita's sparing use of close-ups is of particular note in a movie that a pushy camera could easily have turned into a three-handkerchief soap opera.
The story's antiwar spirit and skepticism toward anticommunist paranoia came straight from Kinoshita's heart. He had resisted flag-waving militarism in earlier war-related movies, and adapting the 1952 novel Twenty-Four Eyes, written by Shodoshima native Sakae Tsuboi, gave him the opportunity to express his humanistic philosophy in terms that audiences of all kinds could find accessible and appealing. Kinoshita doesn't strike the ideal balance between formal rigor and emotional power that his contemporary Yasujiro Ozu found in towering works like Early Summer (1951) and Tokyo Story (1953), but in the film's best moments he comes close.
A great deal of credit goes to the cast, headed by the marvelous Hideko Takamine, whose twenty-five years of experience enabled her to portray Hisako in various stages of life - as a neophyte teacher, a mature parent and educator, and a mellow veteran of her profession - with equal skill, conviction, and charm. Ozu admirers will also enjoy spotting his favorite actor, Chishu Ryu, as a less gifted teacher who fills in for Hisako - or tries to, with lackluster results - when an injury, possibly caused by a pupil's prank, sidelines her from the classroom for a while. Additional kudos go to the unaffected cinematography by Hiroshi Kusuda and the lovely score by the director's brother, Chuji Kinoshita, which is supplemented now and then by Western songs - "Home Sweet Home," "Auld Lang Syne" - that were thoroughly familiar to Japanese listeners in the years following the Allied occupation of their country.
Kinoshita was highly productive, directing some fifty features, writing almost as many screenplays, and serving as a mentor at Shochiku for Masaki Kobayashi, who injected his own pacifist views into amazing movies like The Thick-Walled Room (1956) and the nine-and-a-half-hour epic The Human Condition (1959-1961). Kinoshita isn't as famous in the West as Ozu or Akira Kurosawa or Kenji Mizoguchi, but he was equally meticulous, taking almost four months to shoot Twenty-Four Eyes on location so the sights, sounds, and moods of Shodoshima would emerge as key players in the film. The effect is very different from the muted gorgeousness of The River, the 1951 film by Jean Renoir that Kinoshita credited with inspiring him, and it's even farther away from the gorgeous artifice of Ballad of Narayama (1958), which Kinoshita made just four years later. But it's no less brilliant.
Twenty-Four Eyes is a human and humane drama that instantly won over Japanese moviegoers, was crowned best picture of the year by Kinema Junpo magazine, and earned a Golden Globe as well. It remains an international classic half a century after its premiere.
Director: Keisuke Kinoshita
Producer: Ryotaro Kuwata
Screenplay: Keisuke Kinoshita
Cinematographer: Hiroshi Kusuda
Film Editing: Yoshi Sugiwara
Art Direction: Kimihiko Nakamura
Music: Chuji Kinoshita
With: Hideko Takamine (Hisako Oishi), Shizue Natsukawa (Hisako's mother), Chishu Ryu (older teacher), Hideyo Amamoto (Hisako's husband), Ushio Akashi (principal).
by David Sterritt