Written by Caballero Oscuro
Twenty-Four Eyes uses the story of a rural schoolteacher and her first class of students as a microcosm of the dramatic changes impacting Japan during the tumultuous decades between the late 1920s to the late 1940s. While little known in the US, the film is reportedly and deservedly a beloved classic in its native Japan. Thanks to this sparkling new Criterion DVD release, US audiences finally have the opportunity to discover this hidden gem.
Hisako Oishi (Hideko Takamine) is a young schoolteacher assigned to a class of 12 young students (or “twenty-four eyes”) on a small, remote Japanese island. She quickly gains the affectionate nickname Miss Pebble from her students, and they form a bond that transcends her unfortunate early separation from them. As the years pass, the students and Miss Pebble stay in touch and even have another class together later in their lives. Miss Pebble is clearly a positive influence in their lives, inspiring them to stay in school and pursue their dreams. However, the changes impacting Japan inevitably reach the students and teacher as well.
As the nation gears up and eventually goes to war, each of the boys longs to become a soldier, while the girls are faced with choosing between continuing their studies or helping their families at home or at work. Miss Pebble has her own personal changes, as she settles down with a husband and raises children of her own. The war wreaks havoc on all of them, and as they begin to emerge from its aftermath Miss Pebble finds herself returning to the site of her first class to teach a new generation, in some cases the offspring of her favorite class of students.
At two-and-a-half-hours long, this masterful film actually feels short. Its rich evocation of a time long gone, of a rural pre-war Japan with its requisite architecture, vehicles, and largely unpopulated landscapes, makes for an eye-opening time capsule waiting to envelop viewers in its luxurious black and white photography. As written and directed by Keisuke Kinoshita (based on the original novel by Sakae Tsuboi), the film takes the time to methodically present seemingly insignificant events, such as the students’ foolish decision to walk to Miss Pebble’s house, or the incorporation of performances of traditional songs, but barely skims the surface of each of the characters. In spite of this lack of focus on character development, Kinoshita nails the primary theme of the monumental changes to Japan as reflected through the lives of these individuals by showing the impact on their day-to-day lives. Just seeing the kids and teacher interacting in their early days as compared to their relationship in later years drives home the pain and upheaval suffered by the Japanese people during this era. We don’t need a close affiliation to the characters to capture the full impact of scenes such as a simple visit to the local cemetery late in the film.
As expected from a Criterion release, the DVD transfer is crisp, clean, and well-subtitled, clearly making this the definitive film experience for all Western viewers. The DVD sports a new, restored high-def digital transfer and new and improved English subs, as well as a new video interview with a Japanese cinema historian about the film and its director. The DVD booklet includes an essay by film scholar Audie Bock as well as an excerpt from a 1955 interview with Kinoshita. These features and upgrades, as well as the exceptional source material, make this a DVD that should be bought and treasured rather than rented.