Review: Twenty Four Eyes – Nijushi no hitomi (1954)

Twenty Four Eyes – Nijushi no hitomi (1954)

Directed by: Keisuke Kinoshita | 154 minutes | drama | Actors: Hideki Goko, Hideko Takamine, Yukio Watanabe, Makoto Miyagawa, Takero Terashita, Kunio Sato, Hiroko Ishii, Yasuko Koike, Setsuko Kusano, Kaoko Kase, Yumiko Tanabe, Ikuko Kambara, Hiroko Uehara, Hitobumi Wat Goko, Shiro

Not Kurosawa’s ‘Seven Samurai’, but Kinoshita’s ‘Twenty-Four Eyes’ received the Kinemo Junpo award for best Japanese film in 1954. This film is still ranked among the best ten productions ever in Japan. In contrast to ‘Seven Samurai’, ‘Twenty-Four’ Eyes has been much more forgotten in our country. Inescapable but a shame, because it is a unique piece of film history.

Hisako Oishi (Hideki Takamina) arrives in the spring of 1928 as a school teacher on the remote island of Shudoshima. Her choice of clothing (not a kimono) and the use of a bicycle quickly attract disapproving looks from the island population. She quickly becomes loved by the children and slowly but surely the parents also give in. Hisako tears a tendon in a joke that turns out to be unfortunate. Because she has difficulty walking and the school is difficult to reach, she is transferred to the regional school. Years later she returns to her old school, now the crisis has broken out and Japan starts its military campaign against China. Miss Hisako always has the habit of discussing all subjects freely with her class, including capitalism and communism. This is not appreciated by the school board and Hisako is viewed with increasing suspicion through ever-present eyes. This film should be viewed in the zeitgeist in which it was made. The war lasted much longer for the Japanese than for us. In the early 1930s, the conquest already started on the Asian mainland. The American domination of Japan ended in 1952, soon after that films appeared with a clear statement against their own regime at the time.

It is striking that from a Japanese point of view war films have never really penetrated our regions. Perhaps a turning point has come with ‘Letters from Iwo Jima’. Let’s hope so, because Japan has a rich tradition of pacifist anti-war films. ‘Twenty-Four Eyes’ does not show the horrors of the war, but its influence on the poor population of the remote island of Shudoshima. The crisis that the war brings has major consequences for the people of the island, they lose their money, have to be employed and have no hope for a better future. Director Keisuke Kinoshita shows this problem from the point of view of a teacher and her students.

Ambitions are lost and talent is wasted. This approach makes the war seem even more pointless and insane. The first part of the film has a very cheerful appearance with a smiling teacher and especially many singing children. A complete transformation follows the second and third parts as the tragic consequences of the war come to the fore. Hisako has to deal with students who cannot continue their studies because of the financial crisis and the boys in her class all want to join the army. She herself also loses her faith in teaching, what’s the point if the children only want to die in the name of the nation? Hisako Oishi is hit by blow after blow, her husband is killed in battle and her son and daughter call her a coward. This is all presented in a sublime way and actress Hideki Takamina also knows how to convince in her play.

‘Twenty-Four Eyes’ manages to move but never becomes sentimental. This is especially expressed in the life story of student ‘Matsue’. When both her mother and newborn sister die, she takes up a job as a waitress on the mainland. While on a school trip, Hisako bumps into her, but Matsue doesn’t get much opportunity from her boss to talk to her. As Hisako leaves for Shudoshima with her class, Matsue watches the departing ferry. As she mostly stands with her back to the camera, you can feel the tears burning in her eyes. A unique scene that moves to the depths of the soul. Cinematographically, the film is excellently put together, already in these early years of cinema the Japanese show that they have mastered the technique very well. With beautiful camera positions and the courage to show scenes for a longer period of time, the film drags you along its story and often manages to impress and move. Maybe the acting sometimes comes across as a bit too theatrical, but in this period this was just the way acting had to be done.

‘Twenty-Four Eyes’ gives a nice insight into how the Japanese themselves thought about the war. Let Keisuke Kinoshita take you on a highly immersive journey through one of Japan’s most turbulent periods.

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