Those Twenty-Four Eyes belong to a class full of little children in a small fishing community on Shodoshima Island in Japan in 1928 when young schoolteacher Miss Oishi (Hideko Takamine) arrives to start her new job. Whilst the villagers are in uproar at the sight of this modern woman riding a bicycle in “western” dress, Miss Oishi’s quick wit and sunny disposition soon win over her students. When Miss Oishi is injured in an accident, her adoring children trek for miles to greet her return from the hospital. She rewards their devotion with a slap-up meal, belatedly earning the respect of their parents. Five years on, the newly-married Miss Oishi juggles raising three children with school duties, but in the imperialist age her left-leaning lessons leave the authorities suspecting she is a communist. Despite her best efforts, she finds the girls in her class facing worsening hardships while all the boys enlist in the army, and the resulting despair drives her to abandon teaching. Miss Oishi loses her husband to the war and her only daughter to an accident, but in the aftermath she returns to teach a new generation of youngsters and shares a heartrending reunion with her surviving former students.
Much beloved in Japan, where it eclipsed none other than Akira Kurosawa’s Seven Samurai (1954) as the national film critics’ best film of the year, Twenty-Four Eyes conversely remains a surprisingly controversial film in the west. For some the film seems slight and sentimental while others have gone so far as to decry it as a cynical piece of propaganda. Admittedly the film is symptomatic of a regrettable tendency in Japanese cinema to extol the sorrows of World War II rather than denounce the root causes of it, but to chasten a story so otherwise abundant with grace and humanity for not being apologetic enough seems somewhat churlish. Movies about schoolteachers typically veer towards the sentimental, but Twenty-Four Eyes is grounded by its understanding of the sheer weight of poverty, hardship and dire social circumstances that blight this rural community throughout the pre-war and war years.
Your average schoolteacher movie has the hero or heroine inspiring students to triumph over impossible odds. Here, more often than not the odds are so heavily stacked against these poor kids, Miss Oishi finds she can only teach them how to endure. Young Matsue loses her mother and infant sister and is sold into servitude, unable to rejoin her beloved school. When Oishi sees Matsue again while on a school trip, the girl breaks down and cries watching her classmates journey home with teacher. Another girl named Kotoe quits school to look after her family, only for them to abandon her after she contracts tuberculosis. Talented Masuno loses her chance to go to stage school because her mother stubbornly insists she work in their restaurant, while newly homeless Fujiko weeps when asked to pen an essay about the future since she cannot even imagine one for her family. This is a film about endurance rather than triumph and finding the strength to accept the harsher realities of life, something modern viewers may struggle to understand.
Critics commonly mistake Miss Oishi for a doormat, given she meekly endures the scolding and sniping of people quite clearly in the wrong. What many tend to overlook is the film is rooted in an era and culture where it was not possible for a young woman to assert herself so freely, in the way we now take for granted. Miss Oishi is progressive in her attitudes and, in her own quiet way, lights a flame in each of her pupils that the survivors carry through to adulthood. Hideko Takamine delivers a radiant performance and does a remarkable job aging from fresh-faced youth to rickety old age, while each her young co-stars are distinctively bright and engaging. Takamine was a hugely popular child star who matured into an actress of tremendous ability, regularly working with Mikio Naruse as well as Keisuke Kinoshita, whose films quite often centred around the suffering of women as an allegory for the Japanese nation. Kinoshita’s lively, inventive direction provokes empathy and anguish with a deft touch that still elevates this above the maudlin. He often shoots from a distance, framing his schoolchildren as tiny figures dwarfed by vast landscape, implying history is set to swallow their innocent hopes and dreams, although the succeeding generation prove a hearteningly sturdy bunch. An abundance of songs almost qualifies Twenty-Four Eyes as a musical, particularly the reoccurring “Furusato” which, like the film, enjoys continued popularity in Japan.