“The day I began teaching was also the first day of school for those twelve kids. They looked so small and anxious. Those twenty-four eyes looking up at me were so adorable. I don’t want those adorable eyes to ever lose their sparkle.”
Keisuke Kinoshita’s 1954 film Twenty-Four Eyes opens on an April morning in 1928. A new academic year is about to start, and an impoverished coastal hamlet on the Japanese island of Shodoshima is awaiting the arrival of its new schoolteacher, a young woman named Hisako Oishi (Hideko Takamine) — and when she does show up, it’s nothing short of shocking to the traditional, conservative residents. “A woman in Western clothes just went by on a bike!” one villager runs to her neighbor’s house to announce. As Miss Oishi flies down the road, she’s met with similar comments, stares and disapproval — subtle and otherwise — from everyone she passes. Her male colleague at the school (Chishû Ryû), meanwhile, has his own reasons for regarding her with suspicion, for seeing her as a kind of threat. “That new teacher’s got a teaching license and degree and everything — not like the bumpkins we usually get around here,” he says, then wonders, “Why send such a classy teacher here all of a sudden? What’s the principal thinking?”
Ingratiating herself with this insular community might be difficult under any circumstances, and Miss Oishi is so conspicuously an outsider that it’s an all but insurmountable challenge. The locals resent — and, to some degree, fear — her relative affluence, her level of education, her modernity. They fight back by constantly criticizing or misconstruing her words and actions, accusing her of playing favorites among the children and chastising her for her insensitivity when she laughs at a student’s joke after another student’s house collapses in a storm. “It’s discouraging,” she tells her mother (Shizue Natsukawa) one dreary, rainy night. As she points out, her bicycle, purchased on an installment plan, is not a luxury or a status symbol but a necessity, considering that she lives quite a distance from the school; the bicycle, in turn, necessitates her homemade Western-style clothing. “Am I to walk there in a kimono? It’s ten miles round-trip.” Her mother assures her that the villagers will understand her someday, but that’s small comfort at best.
The only thing that keeps her from giving up is her affection for her students — specifically, the seven girls and five boys in the first grade class, who started school the same day that she did. Their lives, she knows, are not likely to be easy; even at this early age, they have no time to play because they’re expected to look after their younger siblings or help with farming or fishing. She’s determined to do all she can for them, to educate and aid and encourage and guide them — best symbolized, perhaps, by the image of the teacher and her students pretending to be a train, with Miss Oishi as the engine and the children following in a line, holding on to a rope looped around her waist. Eventually, her kindness to them manages to win over their parents as well.
After an injury — the result of a childish prank — makes the long journey to the village school infeasible, Miss Oishi takes a job at the main school in the area, closer to her house. Although this means parting ways with her beloved students for a while, she’s reunited with them five years later when they join her sixth grade class there. By this point, the children are twelve or thirteen years old, and while they’re still young enough to worry about things like owning the most popular type of lunchbox, they’re also starting to encounter more serious problems. The girls are particularly hard-hit: one has to drop out so that she can stay home and cook while her mother fishes and her younger sister goes to school, another is sent away to work after her mother’s death, a third loses her family home, a fourth has to give up on her dreams of a singing career. Their teacher — now called Mrs. Oishi, having married a man (Hideyo Amamoto) who took her last name — can offer them sympathy and advice, but too frequently finds herself unable to help them in any significant way.
She has ample reason to worry about the boys too. In the few short years since she started teaching, Japan has embraced militarism and imperialism to an alarming degree, with the 1931 invasion of Manchuria and the 1932 attack on Shanghai, and even the isolated denizens of Shodoshima aren’t untouched by these developments. When she asks the boys about their futures, they talk about what they’ll do until they get drafted — something they all look forward to, much to her displeasure and unease. “Are you against soldiers?” one of them asks. “No, but I prefer fishermen and rice merchants,” she says — a comment that gets her branded as “a Red.”
Mrs. Oishi may not be a full-fledged political activist, but she is one of the few people in her community willing to question and even criticize her nation’s military bent openly. Later on, during World War II, she tells her young son that she just wants him to be “a normal human being, an ordinary person who values life,” to which he replies that nobody else talks like that. “They may not say it, but that’s how they feel,” she says. Unfortunate as it is, their reticence is understandable in this hostile, frightening atmosphere. One of Mrs. Oishi’s colleagues is arrested simply because he’s suspected of owning an allegedly antiwar pamphlet. As it happens, she’s already read some of this very pamphlet to her students, and though the terrified principal (Ushio Akashi) insists on burning her copy, she proceeds to explain the situation to her class, trying to keep them informed; for this, she receives another rebuke from the principal.
At last, these demoralizing circumstances become too much for Mrs. Oishi to bear. “Our sole duty as teachers is to raise citizens to serve the nation,” the principal tells her. She disagrees with this idea, at least the way he means it, but she realizes that she’s fighting a losing battle. The children that she’s come to love are mere grist for the imperial mill — willing grist, at that — and she can do nothing to protect them, can’t even solve their personal problems that have nothing to do with Japan’s aggressive foreign policy. “I’ve done my best for my students for six years, but we’re not allowed to establish any real bonds,” she laments to her husband. “The only thing tying us together is the state-approved textbook. What hypocrisy!” With her original class of first graders graduating from the school and her first child due in a few months, she decides that this is as good a time as any to quit teaching.
And so the years pass, and soon her now-grown male students are heading off to war, their innocent (if sometimes mournful) childhood songs about trains and animals replaced by songs about the glories of dying for the emperor. Lyrics such as “May today’s battle drench me in red” and “In their dreams their fathers tell them, ‘Don’t come back alive!'” suggest a sort of mass brainwashing, not just among the soldiers but among the crowd cheering them on as they go. They also evoke Kinoshita’s 1944 film Army, a propaganda piece so over-the-top in its jingoism that it often comes across as a satire — an interpretation reinforced by its subversive, moving ending. In it, the mother of a war-bound soldier, a woman who has long bought into her country’s militaristic mindset, suddenly realizes that she may never see her son again, and she rushes out to catch a final glimpse of him as he marches away. As Michael Koresky explains in his essay for the Eclipse set of Kinoshita’s World War II films,
It’s not incidental that the entire climax is wordless—that way the censors had nothing to object to in Tadao Ikeda’s script. On the page, the scene was covered in one sentence: ‘The mother sees the son off at the station.’ What makes this part of the film subtly subversive is purely cinematic—expressive cutting, the variations in camera distance, [Kinuyo] Tanaka’s stunning performance. Years later, Kinoshita said, ‘I can’t lie to myself in my dramas. I couldn’t direct something that was like shaking hands and saying, “Come die.”‘ When the film premiered, there was outrage; an army general even showed up at [film studio] Shochiku and accused Kinoshita of treason. Army was viewed by many as being antiwar, and Kinoshita’s follow-up script about kamikaze pilots was rejected. He was not allowed to direct another film for the remainder of the war.
Rather like Kinoshita himself, Mrs. Oishi has done what she could to counteract the growing madness everywhere around her, but her hands are tied. All she can do now is wave tearfully to her students as they sail away and hope for the best. To add insult to injury, when she goes home, her two small sons are marching around with imaginary rifles over their shoulders, singing about their desire to be soldiers; she hasn’t even been able to influence them as she would like.
Following long, heartbreaking years of war, during and after which she suffers a number of tragic losses, Mrs. Oishi finds herself compelled to return to teaching, back at the little village school where she got her start almost two decades earlier. If not entirely a broken woman, she is a woman on whom life has taken its toll. Her youthful enthusiasm has faded, and though she still possesses a certain inner strength, there’s an emotional fragility to her as well — to such a degree that her new students nickname her “Mrs. Crybaby.” At this stage of the film, it seems as if she or someone else is bursting into tears in almost every scene, but though this may appear excessive, the sorrows that Mrs. Oishi and the other characters experience are, essentially, the sorrows of the Japanese populace at large in that era. For all of the changes that had occurred in the country by the time Twenty-Four Eyes was released in 1954, less than a decade had passed since World War II ended; no doubt many wounds had yet to heal.
Fittingly, the movie concludes in a flood of tears as Mrs. Oishi reunites with most of her surviving students from the original class of twelve. There are sad tears for all that they’ve lost over the years, of course, but there are happy tears too, because it’s finally apparent to Mrs. Oishi that she did make a difference in their lives. While she may not have been able to save them from hardship, much less stop the war from coming, she loved them and they loved her, and that love has endured. The final shots show her riding on a bicycle once again, this one a gift from her old students. It’s raining at first, but the weather clears up as she makes her way toward the school, where she’ll continue her work with her new group of children — children, she hopes, facing a brighter future than the previous generation did.
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