The International Writers Magazine: DVD Review
Twenty-Four Eyes - a Keisuke Kinoshita film
Dan Schneider review
One of the more frustrating film experiences a person can have is watching a film that comes highly recommended (especially by someone whose opinion you generally trust), only to see that it is not nearly as good as claimed. Such is the experience I had while watching my first Keisuke Kinoshita film, the 1954 anti-war film Twenty-Four Eyes.
Niju-Shi No Hitomi, based on a novel by Sakae Tsuboi, and adapted by Kinoshita. It is almost the sine qua non of a film with good intentions but bad results. It is a very dated film, in terms of style, visuals, and narrative, and, even at a lengthy 156 minutes, offers little of real substance in its tale of an almost sickeningly sweet and saintly schoolteacher named Oishi (Hideko Takamine, as a poor man’s Setsuko Hara), who teaches 12 schoolchildren (hence the 24 eyes of the title), on the island of Shodoshima, in Japan’s Inland Sea. The problem is that not a one of the characters in the film has any realistic development. Over the course of nearly two decades, from the mid-1920s through mid-1940s, we follow the teacher, nicknamed Miss Pebble, and her students through an unrelieved cavalcade of suffering, after an idealized beginning. The five boys in her class end up suffering during World War Two, with three dying, one going blind, and the fifth seeming to have emotional issues, while her seven girls fare better, although three of them seem to have lives that go down the drain, in other ways, including one death by disease.
Proof of the utter lack of development and care of the characters comes in their portrayals at four different time periods, by different actors: as First Graders, Sixth Graders, teenagers during the war, and survivors afterward. Yet, none of their names is important- as characters nor actors, because they act as a de facto Greek Chorus to the teacher’s existence. They serve merely as instruments for her to mark time and pain with, as Takemine seemingly does not age a day- despite bearing three children, coping with innumerable tragedies, and the passage of decades- not even gaining a gray hair. There are a few brief asides with the teacher’s husband and family but, predictably, her husband also dies in the war, and her daughter falls out of a tree, trying to retrieve fruit so the family won’t starve.
The DVD, by The Criterion Collection, does an admirable job of restoring the print, but the DVD package is practically bare bones. Aside from an insert booklet that has a 1955 interview with Kinoshita and a functional essay by film scholar Audie Bock, there are only some theatrical teaser trailers and a video interview with Japanese film historian and critic Tadao Sato. It would seem that Criterion has basically foregone the production of any audio commentaries for their DVD releases. Given that streaming has become all the rage, this is an odd pursuit, since film commentaries would seem to be the lone major selling point of DVDs left- that and English language dubbing options, which also are not offered. The only option given is Criterion’s usual unbordered plain white font which often washes out against high contrast light backgrounds in black and white films such as this, rendering a good portion of the film’s subtitles virtually unreadable unless one squints and is close to the screen.
Criterion’s continued disregard of its potential audience does not augur well for the future of the company nor home releases of classic foreign cinema. As for the technical side of things, the film is shown in a 1.33:1 aspect ratio, and the cinematography, by Hiroyuki Kusuda, is solid, but nothing spectacular, and, as mentioned, the screenplay is the great culprit in this film’s failure, but, almost as if the screenplay were not enough to doom this film is the film score by Chuji Kinoshita. It is possibly one of the worst and most inapt film scores I’ve ever heard, at least on a film widely considered to be a classic. Despite the film’s being Japanese there are a handful of Western songs that are mind-blowingly inapt, including a Christmas carol, What A Friend We Have In Jesus, Home, Sweet Home, and Auld Lang Syne. Not only are the songs, by their nature inapt, but they are applied, sentimentally, in all the wrong spots in the drama, or- to be exact- melodrama, for that’s what this film is, a melodrama, in the worst sense of the term.
Even worse is the fact that Kinoshita, at times, seemingly turns the film into a musical, by having the children sing songs for an inordinate amount of time. Aside from the fact that the songs are generic and so simple-minded, there comes the question of why Kinoshita would want to turn his film into a Japanese prequel for The Sound Of Music? This is yet another example of the sort of dumb stuff that goes on when a bad film gets everything but the kitchen sink tossed into it to try and make it passable.
Perhaps the only thing that really brought a smile to my face was the ironic use of veteran Yasujiro Ozu actor Chishu Ryu (of the Noriko Trilogy fame) as the older teacher early on in the film. Yet, despite being older, he is shown as significantly younger than the character he plays in his most famous role as the father in Ozu’s Tokyo Story. Twenty-Four Eyes, as it is, is not a good film. One might argue it’s not a bad film, but it never rises above middle brow mediocrity. It’s greatest contribution may not be cinematic, but cultural, in that it helped pave the way for future Japanese films that dealt with the war more centrally, graphically, and objectively, like The Human Condition, The Burmese Harp, and Fires On The Plain. By contrast Twenty-Four Eyes is simplistic, both in its message and execution, and is utterly void of the real depth of emotion that a film like Ikiru offers.
Had Kinoshita had a bit more vision, he would have made the good editorial choice of not letting the film drone on through its middle parts, and simply bifurcated the tale into its early scenes, with the children at their youngest, thereby showing the deep early bond created, then coming back, twenty years later, to see the after effects of the war. This would have allowed for a greater dramatic gut punch to be felt, rather than us seeing the attendant soap operatic misery that entwined the characters’ lives in the interim, which has the effect of removing all of the revelatory shock that could have been gained at the film’s end by eliding the middle years, and going directly in to the ending, where the children first give their teacher a gift, then weep with her. Of course, given that the film rarely rises above its tearjerker status, what else could be expected?
Twenty-Four Eyes is not the worst film I’ve ever seen, but given its recommendation to me, by several people whose opinions I have found useful in the past, it is one of the worst filmic disappointments I can recall. Blame for that can be had on the film’s recommenders, myself, but most of all director Kinoshita. And, with finger justly pointed, please, no more tears! See the Trailer here
© Dan Schneider November 2014
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