Spotlight on Japan: Twenty-four Eyes

A calm shot of the sea with a few islands. A boat passes by. On one of the islands, Shodoshima, an enthusiastic young woman (Hideko Takamine) rides her bike while greeting the grumbly farmers and fishermen. She is the new teacher of a small local school where she is going to be the homeroom teacher for the first year students. In Keisuke Kinoshita’s Twenty-four Eyes, the story revolves around the relationship between the teacher and her students as they grow up.

Because the beginning of the film is set in the 30’s, the teacher’s bicycle and modern clothing make the old-fashioned locals irritated. It is this clash between the traditions and modernity that is always present in the film and it appears in many clever forms. However, the bicycle and clothes do not actually tell anything about the teacher – since she uses them only because she lives so far away from work and there is no public transportation she could use. Eventually she does reveal her modern teaching methods and thoughts that baffle the ones relying on tradition. Furthermore, it’s a conflict between the ones who are willing to sacrifice everything for the society and those who strongly support individuality. As time passes, the local people notice that she is loved by the students and accept her.

But that was only the beginning of the film. The children grow up and the teacher gets married. World War 2 begins. It is at this point when the central themes truly unfold and the tragedy is born. The cheerful and playful days of the childhood turn into nightmarish scenarios that even adults can’t handle. The children are suppressed by the society one by one. The girls are forced to replace their mothers, find work or marry. The boys are fooled by the patriotic spirit and become soldiers even though the teacher tries to controversially change their minds. The anti-war message begins to fully sink in when you witness the consequences of the war for each student individually.

Criticism of society and war in Japan of the 30’s and 40’s makes the film instantly a political one. Capitalism and communism are even discussed in the film’s dialogue – and that way the film shows the first signs of its alignment. While the traditional Japanese were more or less comic initially with their reluctance to understand anything modern, the attitude has more severe consequences as anyone who even implies one’s dislike of Japan’s involvement in the war is considered a communist and arrested. It is this blind self-sacrifice that is explored in the later parts of the film.

Twenty-four Eyes is well known as a tear-jerking film – even the Masters of Cinema DVD’s text quotes Tadao Sato who has said that it has “wrung more tears out of Japanese audiences than any other post-war film”. I can personally say that it isn’t just limited to the Japanese as I consider the film one of the moving movies I’ve ever seen. A significant part of it is due to the colorful cast of characters: the teacher and all of her 12 students are lovable individuals whose eventual agony and grief are very tangible. I admit that the film could be considered manipulative (shots of crying children), but this emotional manipulation fits well to the great melodrama that is often present.

Because the characters are so important for the film, the acting needs to be of the best possible quality. I don’t think I’ve ever seen such a convincing and natural cast of child actors – at least not when you exclude solo performances and remember when the film was made. However, the hardest task of the film goes to the late Hideko Takamine who simply shines throughout the film. Her enthusiasm and joy as a young teacher are contagious, but she is even more impressive as her character evolves into something more cynical and tragic. There are various shades to her characters and she portrays all of them with stunning dedication.

In a film as melodramatic as Twenty-four Eyes, one would assume that the film prefers to “tell” instead of “showing”. However, in this film the two are quite balanced. Despite the reliance on dialogue, a significant amount of subtle storytelling is constantly running in the shots. Changes in scenery and focus on certain objects is more common than one might notice on the first view when most of the focus is on the obvious melodrama. However, simple melodrama wouldn’t make Twenty-four Eyes the tear-jerker it is – instead it relies more on these hidden clues and motifs that lift the film’s emotional impact.

Kinoshita’s compositions and editing are underappreciated: the neat framing of the glorious landscapes and the flexible editing pull you easily into the film and it certainly holds your attention until the end credits roll. Despite the film’s melodrama, the soundtrack uses less “conventional” music. The usual classical is often discarded and the folk songs sung by the cast often dominate the sound design. Even with low audio quality the sheer power of the emotional singing plays a significant role in determining the film’s emotional impact.

In short, Keisuke Kinoshita’s Twenty-four Eyes is one of the most underappreciated Japanese films I can think of. Even though it is well known that Kinoshita was Kurosawa’s teacher his films are often forgotten – which is especially tragic in this film’s case. Due to its cinematic brilliance and raw emotional power, Twenty-four Eyes belongs to my all time favorite films without a doubt.

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About Oz
A Finnish film buff who has taken a huge interest in language and Japanese cinema. Can be contacted via email (johlauri@hotmail.com), Twitter (@OzymandiasJL) and a Private Message on EvaGeeks (Oz).

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