TWENTY-FOUR EYES (Japan / 1954)
Despite the fact that he was one of the most prolific and beloved postwar filmmakers in Japan, Kinoshita Keisuke (1912-1998), much like Naruse Mikio, was a relatively unknown commodity in the west for a long period of time. While Kinoshita's 1958 effort, Ballad of Narayama, arguably remains his most famous work, Twenty-Four Eyes (Nijushi no hitomi), which not only finished first in Kinema Junpos 1954 poll but was recently selected as one of the greatest Japanese films of all-time by the country's critics, is his most lauded.
Set in a poor fishing village on the island of Shodoshima, the second largest in Japan's Seto Inland Sea, the film unfolds over an 18-year span, starting in 1928 as we witness a dozen first-graders (the "twenty-four eyes") encountering their "awfully modern" new teacher on her bike on the way to school. Exquisitely essayed by the great Takamine Hideko (who initially appears as if shes just wandered off a Naruse set), the bright, headstrong Miss Oishi also draws some attention due to her western attire (her suit, it turns out, was made from an old kimono, thus symbolizing her regard for traditions despite her novel appearance) and unorthodox teaching methods, but in a short period of time she finds a way to win the hearts and minds of her young pupils and their parents.
At once epic and intimate, Twenty-Four Eyes, like some of the best films of the past and present, is set to the indeterminate rhythms of life. And life, as it has a tendency to do, regularly intervenes in various forms, even shattering the hopes and ideals of those who at one point here seemed to be beyond it all. If the young girls in Oishis class are eventually affected by the indigenous customs and the worsening economy, the boys bear the brunt of the countrys aggressive war efforts in China (which the film critiques via Oishis pacifist stance, not to mention by placing an emphasis on folk songs and nursery rhymes instead of official patriotic jingles).
Kinoshita -- whose 1951 Takamine-starrer Carmen Comes Home was Japans first full-color motion picture -- was considered to be quite proficient at melodrama, and its not hard to see why. Even though the film contains enough hankie moments to satisfy the most hardcore of Oprah fans (the nickname of "cry-baby" is appropriately, and ironically, deployed for one character), it remarkably earns most of them. Meanwhile, making sure that the emotional toll doesnt become overbearing is Kinoshitas spacious mise-en-scne, featuring strikingly eloquent compositions (this 156-minute effort is also beautifully edited). Based on Tsuboi Sakae's 1952 novel of the same name, Twenty-Four Eyes is a lyrical and profoundly moving piece of work which is fully deserving of its place in Japanese cinema history.