Twenty-Four Eyes (Nijushi no hitomi) [DVD]
Director : Keisuke Kinoshita
Screenplay : Keisuke Kinoshita (based on the novel by Sakae Tsuboi)
MPAA Rating : NR
Year of Release : 1954
Stars : Hideko Takamine (Hisako Oishi), Shizue Natsukawa (Hisako’s mother), Chishu Ryu (Male school teacher), Kumeko Urabe (Male schoolteacher’s wife), Hideyo Amamoto (Hisako’s husband), Ushio Akashi (Schoolmaster)
A sweet and gentle hymn of integrity, perseverance, humility, and love, Keisuke Kinoshita’s Twenty-Four Eyes (Nijushi no hitomi) tells the story of an idealistic young schoolteacher on a small Japanese island and the first 12 students she teaches. This is a well-worn genre, in both the East and the West, and as such it is constantly in danger of turning into saccharine stickiness, oozing unearned sentimentality by exploiting our affections for those who genuinely care about others and aren’t afraid to sacrifice themselves for their betterment. The fact that Twenty-Four Eyes consistently avoids sliding into such muck is Kinoshita’s greatest achievement, and he manages it mainly by anchoring his two-decade story in the larger events that were gripping the Japanese culture, what Kinoshita himself called “Japan’s tragedy.”
Based on the popular novel by Sakae Tsuboi, Twenty-Four Eyes opens in 1928 with the arrival of the fresh-faced Hisako Oishi (Hideko Takamine) in a small fishing village on Shodoshima, the second largest island in Japan’s inland sea. Although she lives on the other side of the island, she is a virtual stranger in this village, and she makes an immediate impression and draws stares from the poor villagers were her “modernity” (she rides a bicycle and wears a Western style suit). This is the first of the film’s many lessons in the difference between outward appearances and internal intentions, as Oishi’s dress and mode of transportation are purely functional in nature (“What am I supposed to do, walk 10 miles in a kimono?” she later asks her mother). It is also the first of many times we will see Oishi respond to negativity with the kind of grace and humility most of us only wish we had.
Oishi’s job is to teach a classroom full of elementary-age students, each of whom she shows respect and affection, even the supposed classroom bully whom she gently chides into sweeter behavior. The children immediately take to her precisely because of the way she treats them, and like any great teacher she makes learning both enjoyable and meaningful, although it seems like they spend an awful lot of time outdoors singing old Japanese folk songs. Kinoshita and his cinematographer Hiroyuki Kusuda (who also happened to be his brother-in-law) constantly emphasize the characters’ integration with the natural beauty of the rustic island, which seems tucked away in its own time warp.
However, the island is not immune to larger historical forces, and over the next several years Oishi and her students will be forced to grapple with various turmoil and tragedies, both internal and external. In terms of the former, many of the students are constantly struggling against poverty and familial crisis, and some of them have to drop out of school prematurely in order to work and support their families. One poor girl must quit attending school after her father, a sad and possibly abusive alcoholic, loses his wife in childbirth and she must become the de facto mother. Oishi’s responses to these events is gentle and kind as realizes the fundamental reality of impoverished lives even as she mourns the death of another child’s potential to break free from it.
On a larger scale, the island is deeply affected by the growing militarism of Japan during the 1930s and the eventual outbreak of World War II, which claims many young lives as Oishi’s male students join the army and come back as ashes. It is here that the film is at its most daring as Kinoshita uses Oishi’s character to openly criticize the romanticizing of the military and war. In one of the film’s most quietly moving moments, Oishi tells several of her male students that she prefers poor fishermen to soldiers, and for this she is branded a coward. She also gets in trouble with the schoolmaster when she talks about social issues in the classroom, which risks her bring branded a “Red” and arrested, which is an all-too-potent reminder of how free thinking can be turned into a political sin in repressive times.
As good as it is, though, Twenty-Four Eyes may ask for a few hankies too many. Kinoshita keeps the sentiment in check for most of the film, even as he scores the film’s most emotional scenes to Western songs like “Auld Lang Syne” and “What a Friend We Have in Jesus,” but the final third spirals into a series of tragedies--one after another after another--that start to pile up like a train wreck, to the point that it becomes exhausting. However, as a whole the film still works quite beautifully because the first two-thirds had established such an effective emotional charge that it carries through to the almost perfectly bittersweet ending.
|Twenty-Four Eyes Criterion Collection DVD|
|Audio||Japanese Dolby Digital 1.0 Monaural|
|Distributor||The Criterion Collection|
|Release Date||August 19, 2008|
|VIDEO & AUDIO|
|Making its video debut in the U.S., Twenty-Four Eyes has been given the expectedly detailed Criterion treatment with a new high-definition transfer from a 35mm fine-grain master positive followed by restoration via the MTI Digital Restoration System (the 1.33:1 image is unfortunately pictureboxed). Even with all the attention, the image still shows some signs of its age, which is typical of postwar Japanese films, many of which suffered from inferior film stock and less-than-ideal archival conditions. The black-and-white image has good detail even if it is slightly soft and lacking in contrast overall, and there are visible fine lines and scratches throughout, especially during transitions, that couldn’t be corrected without compromising the picture. The monaural soundtrack, transferred at 24-bit from a 35mm optical soundtrack print and digitally restored, is similar to the image in that it likely represents the best possible presentation, but is still somewhat limited by age and technology. It is free of any overt ambient hiss and crackling.|
|The supplements include a new 20-minute video interview with cinema historian and critic Tadao Sato, who discusses the historical and cultural relevance of the film, as well as the life and career of its director. Also included on the disc are two Japanese theatrical teaser trailers for the film.|
Copyright ©2008 James Kendrick
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