Even without comparison to other 1954 Japanese releases (Sansho the Bailiff, The Seven Samurai, Late Chrysanthemums), Keisuke Kinoshita’s serpentine and sentimental Twenty-Four Eyes would still be pretty thin soup. The sprawling story begins in 1928 as plucky young teacher Hisako Oishi (Hideko Takamine) breezes into her new post at a rural Island Sea village, precipitating a bit of clucking among local biddies (“Riding a bicycle and wearing a suit. What’s the world coming to?”) but winning the love of the 12 first-graders (the 24 eyes of the title) in her class. The Goodbye, Mr. Chips-flavored predictability of the plot—in which distrustful parents learn to embrace the “modern woman,” the pupils pay the ailing teacher a lachrymose visit, and songs and excursions rule the day—is made more interesting by its historical background. As time passes and the country marches toward war, the children’s individuality is gradually smothered by militarist pomp and songs about lotus flowers and colored shells give way to hymns about favorite rifles and crushed enemies. Dismayed at the school’s adherence to governmental restrictions, Hisako resigns and focuses instead on raising a family, though she can’t let go of the students who have over the years become her surrogate children. Relentlessly wet-eyed, Twenty-Four Eyes mixes traces of trenchant wartime sorrow with dollops of saccharine nostalgia for schoolyard chorales; the resulting blend, alternately endearing and overbearing to modern eyes and ears, was reportedly a soothing experience to contemporary Japanese audiences for whom the fallout of the war was still a fresh and dolorous memory. Truly great melodrama is cathartic regardless of period context—Mahalia Jackson throbbing with “Trouble of the World” in Sirk’s Imitation of Life is unmistakably evocative of the Civil Rights movement, yet I’ve yet to meet a viewer who wasn’t shaken by the film’s waves of emotion. By contrast, Kinoshita’s film is not unlike the headmaster’s description of the island weather: “Not too hot, not too cold.”
Gentle grays dominate the image, with a minimum of flickering. The mono audio reproduces the steady flow of songs and sobs with clarity.
In an instructive 19-minute interview, Japanese film historian Tadao Sato discusses the film’s immense popularity, its therapeutic effect on audiences and the director’s varied career. Also included in this rather scant Criterion package is a pair of teasers and a booklet containing Audie Bock’s layered analysis of the film and excerpts from an interview with Kinoshita.
Twenty-Four Eyes, a hundred lumps in the throat. Beware of choking.