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

Directed by: Keisuke Kinoshita | 154 minutes | | Actors: , , , , , , , Yasuko Koike, Setsuko Kusano, , , , Hiroko Uehara,

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

Hisako Oishi (Hideki Takamina) arrived in the spring of 1928 as a school teacher on the remote island of Shudoshima. Her choice of clothing (no kimono) and the use of a bicycle quickly lead to disapproving looks from the island population. She quickly becomes loved by the children and slowly but surely the parents too. A joke that turns out unfortunate causes Hisako to tear a tendon. 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 is starting its military campaign against China. Miss Hisako has always had a habit of discussing all topics 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 must be viewed in the spirit of the times in which it was made. The lasted much longer for the Japanese than for us. In the early 1930s, the conquest began on the Asian mainland. The American domination of Japan came to an end in 1952, soon afterwards films with a clear statement against the own regime at the time were released.

It is striking that, from a Japanese point of view, war films have never properly penetrated our regions. Perhaps a turning point has come here 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 atrocities of the war, but its influence on the poor population of the remote island of Shudoshima. The crisis brought on by the war has major consequences for the people of the island, they lose their money, have to be employed and have no hope of 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 meaningless 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 when the tragic consequences of the war come to the fore. Hisako has to deal with students who cannot continue their studies due to the financial crisis and the boys in her class all want to join the army. She herself also loses faith in teaching, what is the point if the children only want to die in the name of the nation? Hisako Oishi is hit hard, her husband is killed in battle and her son and daughter call her a coward.

‘Twenty-Four Eyes’ knows how to move but never gets sentimental. This is mainly expressed in the life story of student ‘Matsue’. When both her mother and newborn sister die, she goes to work on the mainland as a waitress. Hisako accidentally bumps into her on a school trip, but Matsue doesn’t get much of an opportunity to talk to her from her boss. As Hisako and her class leave for Shudoshima, Matsue watches the departing ferry. While she mainly allows with her back to the camera, you can feel the tears in her eyes. A unique scene that moves to the depths of the soul. Cinematographically, the film is put together excellently, 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 time, the film drags you along with its story and often knows how to impress and move you. Maybe the acting sometimes comes across as a bit too theatrical, but this was just the way the acting should be done in this period.

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

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