Knowing that “24 Eyes” (Nijushi no hitomi, 1954) is Kinoshita Keisuke’s “most beloved film” and that it runs 156 minutes made me wary. The pace is leisurely, at least through the first two-thirds of the film, though the movie covers eighteen years that were very tumultuous for Japan (1928-46) even on the second largest island in the Inland Sea, Shodoshima. It opens with the new teacher in a two-teacher village grade school, Miss Oishi (Takamine Hideko), shocking the locals by wearing western dress and arriving on a shiny new bicycle, causing the tongues of censorious beer-sizzling mothers to wag.
After she breaks a leg in a prank by her male first-grade students (and they are taught by the clueless veteran teacher played by Ryû Chishû) both the students and their parents come to appreciate her. The students rejoin her when they start fifth grade in town, where the teacher lives. In the paranoid militarist (/fascist) Japan of the 1930s, she is suspected of being “a Red,” and after being reprimanded by the principal (looking out for her, since he was a friend of her dead father) for telling her boys that she would prefer them to be living farmers or fishermen to being heroically dead soldiers, she is labeled a “coward,” and decides to quit teaching (to run a candy store).
In 1942, after an eight year gap in which she has borne two sons and an infant daughter, her students and her (pleasure cruise captain) husband are drafted—to her dismay that is barely disguised in public and is overt at home, where she is unhappy about her two sons marching around singing military songs.
Surviving students (including a blind veteran of the war) gather to celebrate her return to the village school in 1946. That gathering seems an apt place to hear “Auld Lang Syne,” but Kinoshita Chûji (the director’s brother and usual soundtrack-provider) uses various instrumentations of that hackneyed song seven times in the last hour and a half of the movie, plus “What a Friend We Have in Jesus” three times, and “Annie Laurie” earlier on (I think twice).* I think there is also an hour of the children singing (including the national anthem, a song about a chirping plover, and a song of thanks to teachers at two graduations). I don’t think there is any music original to the movie, just arrangements (often treacly ones) of various Japanese and western standards. (I have already commented in earlier postings that the music his brother provided is largely responsible for the sentimentality charged to Kinoshita movies.)
Though the cloying music annoys me, I’ll readily stipulate that the director’s brother-in-law, who had been his cinematographer from the beginning of his directorial career, did outstanding work, whether closeups of the actors (including twelve pairs of siblings 5-7 years apart in age) or long shots of processions and the terrain of Shodoshima. The Criterion edition print is good (and generally well subtitled), if it’s blacks are just a bit washed out.
The movie was shot, mostly sequentially, on location over the course of a whole year, though the wheat seems high most of the time, and there are cherry blossoms both at the beginning and at the end of school years. Both are photogenic, so I wouldn’t complain too much about their incongruity.
The movie was/is loved in Japan for showing rural solidarity and characteristics of Japanese other than those exposed by the victors’ war crimes trials following the war. Kinoshita showed mothers’ aversion to sending their sons off to die as early as his 1944 film financed by the Army Ministry, “Army,” and unloaded at the militarists who brought disaster to the homeland in “Morning for the Osone Family,” as well as showing the mutual suspicion of people relocated from Tokyo and rural folk in “Boyhood,” so was far form being an apologist for the Japanese war makers and their inculcating the sentiment of the marching off song, “We won’t return alive unless we’ve won” and the general cult of dying for the emperor (in which “unless we’ve won” seems an afterthought to looking forward to the glory of death).
(Though the war has a major impact in depopulating the island and spreading grief, the area is too remote to be bombed and there is no direct representation of warmaking.)
The Criterion edition DVD has a nearly 20-minute-long interview with clips of film historian Sato Tadao that clued me to the sibling casting and that Kinoshita had wanted to film a different novel by Tsuboi Sakae than the 1952 24 Eyes. His assertion that Kinoshita’s trip to Paris turned him into a more socially aware film-maker, however, is nonsense. Indeed, other than “24 Eyes” and “Immortal Love,” I’d say that Kinoshita’s later movies were less social criticism, and that his most pointed social criticism was in the 1946 “Morning for the Osone Family” and the 1948 “Apostasy.” Hulu streams both the trailer and the Sato interview, btw.
- In the booklet essay for the DVD Audie Block defended the musical choices: ‘If the themes of “Annie Laurie,” “Auld Lang Syne,” and “What a Friend We Have in Jesus,” played on guitar, flute, violin, and harp, seem un-Japanese, it is our ears that are a little off. It’s necessary to detach ourselves from the cultural associations we impose on music. The Western tunes and Western instrumentation are just as ordinary to the Japanese ear as the old Japanese folk songs the twelve children sing with their teacher. The easy transitions the composer, Kinoshita’s brother Chuji, makes between East and West are no more unusual than the use of Ravel and Beethoven in Akira Kurosawa’s film music.’ I do not accept this, since the associations of “Auld Lang Syne” are clearly intended, and I’m not sure that “Take it to the Lord in prayer” is not intended to link to “Lord Buddha.” Moreover, the resemblance of the music of Kurosawa’s “Rashômon” has been severely criticized in the west since the movie made it to international attention.
@2016, Stephen O. Murray