In the year that Kurosawa’s Seven Samurai was scooping up accolades in the English-speaking world, it was passed over in Japanese awards lists in favour of another film. It was Keisuke Kinoshita’s unapologetically sentimental 24 Eyes that walked away with the Kinema Junpo award for Best Film of 1954 – a decision that endures today as a yardstick of the difference between foreign critics and the interests of the average Japanese moviegoer.
The UK DVD edition is a beautiful package from Eureka Films (the UK home for Criterion), cogently translated and transferred, with a posh booklet by Joan Mellen putting everything in context. But what of the film itself, that forgotten classic that Japan’s critics lionised in the year that also gave us the original Godzilla?
24 Eyes was an influence on the anime Gunbuster, which lifted elements of its elegiac quality in another tale of loss over the years. But Kinoshita’s original travels in time in a less flashy, more old-fashioned way, by simply waiting for stuff to happen. Schoolteacher Miss Oishi (Hideko Takamine) becomes attached to her first class of 12 children, and gets to revisit them at later moments in their lives, teaching them again when they are older and attending a different school. Similar basic elements of educational melodrama are common enough, and in Mr Holland’s Opus, for example, became a breathless hymn to the American dream. In Goodbye Mr Chips, comparable materials became an elegy for the decline of diminishing British imperial status, and the collapse of Victorian values in a cruel new world. But if so, what does 24 Eyes say about the Japanese?
So soon after the departure of occupying American forces, Japanese moviegoers lapped 24 Eyes up for its tranquil setting on the Inland Sea, all islands and fishing boats and people mending nets. Even in black and white, one gets an immediate sense of the bright sun and cobalt-blue waters, far from the madding crowds of urban Japan.
Presumably, Japanese audiences also enjoyed the idea that fascism was a sort of cold that everyone caught in the 1930s, and that the best thing to do was just to sniffle for a while and hope it went away. They must have also shrugged their shoulders at the callous disdain of almost everyone Miss Oishi meets. Her immediate school superior is an ignorant buffoon who despises her for being “modern” (because she rides a bicycle), and the sneering local parents all think she’s a bitch for no obvious reason. The yokels later change their minds because she helps round up their unsupervised, unpleasant children and thereby saves them all from dying of exposure.
Things eventually change because two of the spiteful boys dig a pit trap (yes, a pit trap) for their teacher and Miss Oishi duly snaps her Achilles tendon falling into it. This, it turns out, is the catalyst that forces her to leave the original school, as she is laid up for months recovering, and is still hobbling on crutches the following year. The kids come to the tardy realisation that this is a bad thing, and begin the first of several episodes of insincere weeping and howling.
Later, one of the girls is sold into indentured servitude at a noodle bar, disappears from class, and is found miserably waiting tables when the rest of the class is on a school trip. A conversation ensues between Miss Oishi and the noodle bar owner, conducted in beautifully scripted Japanese, whereby the owner says very little except platitudes and polite compliments – the sort of conversation that, when translated into English, has made generation after generation of gullible foreigners assume that the Japanese are universally nice.
Properly translated, however, when one knowingly sifts through the difference between communicative and referential language, the bar owner says: “There is nothing you can do about this. The girl belongs to me. Now buy something or piss off.” I am something of a connoisseur of such exchanges, and, if anyone is interested, recommend the book Rules for Conversational Rituals in Japanese for some wonderful analyses of similar dialogues with hidden depths.
So, yes, 24 Eyes is sharply written, well shot, and the child-actors are, for the most part, mercifully tolerable. But the whole thing leaves me mindful of 100 Years, one of the fin-de-siecle TV serials that tried to sum up the 20th century, and by luck or by design, ended up implying that the Japanese were a bunch of selfish, sexist brutes and dim-witted melancholy doormats, who spent their whole lives biting their lips and wishing they weren’t Japanese at all. Similarly, if one wants to read a cultural self-image into 24 Eyes, it inadvertently offers ample testimony that the Japanese are a bunch of unruly, bestial children whose favourite pastime is committing acts of unforgivable cruelty, and then feigning contrition for as long as the adults are watching.
Director Kinoshita’s actual message is the same as that of Sakae Tsuboi, on whose 1952 novel the film was based. Miss Oishi is a Japanese everywoman for the 1950s, daunted by the brutalities committed in her name by the authorities that despised her, marginalised in an era of martial law where all left-leaning educators were regarded as potential threats, and left widowed and broken in the aftermath.
Tsuboi’s novel was a heartfelt polemic directed not at the Japanese people, but their government and its newfound foreign allies. She began writing in the aftermath of WW2, while the Japanese still struggled to come to terms with their recent past, and reclaimed it as a homespun, peasant idyll. Tsuboi was elated at the demilitarisation of the Japanese state, and left sputtering and scandalised, scant years after Japan proclaimed itself to be pacifist, when the nation became an “unsinkable aircraft carrier” for the Cold War, starting with the Korean conflict.
24 Eyes remains a cornerstone of Japanese culture, and puzzlingly popular with Japanese educators, who do not seem to see the awful irony in the film’s ending. Miss Oishi is visited by the survivors of her original class, the 24 eyes of the title now reduced to a mere 14, two of which belong to a blinded war veteran. Everyone reminisces about the good old days, although it is difficult to see how Miss Oishi’s presence in the children’s lives has done them any good at all. Unlike, say, Good Will Hunting or the Dead Poets Society, there is little sense of education as a liberating opportunity. Only one of Miss Oishi’s students, in fact, seems to have a job that requires any skills taught above an elementary school level, leaving the viewer with the sense of Miss Oishi not as a Japanese Mr Chips or Mr Holland, but as a Japanese Canute, standing dutifully but impotently against a rising tide of ignorance.
Jonathan Clements is the author of A Brief History of Japan.