Once upon a time in Japanese-occupied…uh…Japan.
An island named Shodoshima. The subtitles say that this is two decades ago, meaning 1934, but then later states that it is April of 1928. That is actually a pretty important difference within the context of this movie, but whatever. It is 1928.
In any case, a group of students from the village village are walking to their schoolhouse, singing on the way. They see their teacher, who is leaving for reasons unstated. Probably marriage. She tells them that the new teacher is…new…but good and nice. She jokes about whether they plan to make the new teacher cry like they did to her. The teacher’s name is Oishi, meaning big stone. One of the students assumes that she must be tall. When the old teacher says that the new teacher is actually shorter than her, the students come up with a nickname for this teacher whom they have not even yet met: Miss Pebble.
That encounter makes them late for school, so they start running the rest of the way. However, on the way, they see a woman in Western clothes riding a bicycle. Such a thing has not been seen in these parts. They think that she must be a tough modern girl. She rides around the village, startling the locals, until she arrives at the school. The children crowd around the bike outside. She is amused that they are acting as if they had never seen a bicycle before. This is Miss Oishi Hisako.
Miss Oishi starts a conversation with another teacher, pointing to her house, saying that it is a 50 minute ride by bicycle, even though it looks close. He comes up with an excuse to leave the schoolhouse and walk to his home, where he complains to his wife that there is no way of getting rid of this new teacher, since she has a license to teach, unlike the usual bumpkins that they get. She just seems so…classy; I guess that he finds it intimidating, so he should wear shoes today.
Time for class to start. Oishi tries to take attendance, but immediately runs into trouble. Many of the kids do not respond to their actual names, since they go by nicknames. Or maybe they are just trying to make things more difficult for Oishi, as they find this whole ordeal amusing. She notes the nicknames in her form. She seems unrattled and happily gives it back, telling one “helpful” student named Aizawa “Nikuta” Nita that he is a little busybody and maybe a bit of a bully, given his nickname. Eventually, she starts trying to guess nicknames.
Sometime later, Oishi is off on her bicycle, passing by groups of students who call her big stone, little pebble. Meanwhile, a trio of mothers stand around drinking and talking about what they heard. Miss Oishi writing down the nicknames? Maybe playing favorites?
School time again. Oishi asks the students where the emperor lives. Nita says that the emperor lives in the closet. Everyone laughs, including Oishi, but it seems as if he was not joking. After all, isn’t he hiding in the school closet? Oishi explains that that is just a picture of the emperor, and that this little school does not have a proper place for it.
Some time later, the class is jogging outside, singing songs. Then walking outside…singing songs. Lots of singing.
It is the evening and Oishi is at home with her mother. Out of her Western clothes and in a kimono. And her cheery nature is gone. She tells her mother that she has picked up on the rather unfriendly nature of the villagers and had asked the other teacher why. Apparently, her suit and her bicycle are too flashy and make people uneasy. But both things are purely practical necessities for her, since walking ten miles in a kimono is not going to happen. A bike is not exactly a luxury and she bought it on installments which she has still not fully paid. Still, the other teacher saves all of his money, so Oishi figures that a woman buying on credit is still outrageous to the villagers. Still, she finds it ironic that they call her a modern girl, even though she had made her suit herself out of her mother’s old kimono. Her mother tells her that they will understand someday. She tells her that it is difficult for female teachers to make it there, and that male teachers who do not make principal are sent there as their last assignment. In a year, Oishi will probably be transferred to the main school.
Oishi is still rather glum, but then she looks over calligraphy works of her students’ names, remembers their faces on the first day of school, and starts to smile again. Those twelve students, their 24 adorable eyes looking up at her. She does not want those eyes to ever lose their sparkle. But none of those children have time to play after school. They have to care for younger siblings or help with farming or fishing. Her mother reminds her that it is a poor village. So, Oishi reasons, she should not let a little adversity dampen her spirits. She is happy again, vowing to carry on.
It is September, and a great storm has just hit the village. Oishi and around two dozen children are picking up wood and stone that got on the seaside pathway. A couple students run over to tell her that the walls of Nita’s house fell in and that he was in his closet. A student jokes that Nita was trying to take the place of the emperor. Everyone laughs until a village woman runs over and yells at them for making light of other people’s misfortune. She says that her father-in-law fell off the roof and dares Oishi to laugh at that. She accuses Oishi of making the kids clear the path for her bike.
That puts a stop to their path-clearing, so they walk over to the rocks by the sea and sing on the beach. Well, most of them do. A trio of boys dig a hole in the sand and try to hide it. Then they call over Oishi, saying that they found a rare seashell. She runs over to them and falls right into the hole. Everyone laughs but…uh oh…she is really hurt. Everyone starts crying. Oishi tries to reassure the kids that it is all right, that they just need to get the other teacher and tell them that she broke her leg. A quartet of men put her on a cart and wheel her off the beach, with the children following behind. One of the men does not believe that her leg is broken, but she still needs a doctor.
Now it is more work for the other teacher, who is not as good at music. But, he knows that Oishi has it worse, having torn a tendon. With her mother furious about the incident, he is unsure whether Oishi will even return. His wife says that they should get a substitute at some point, but that the students will respect him if he learns to play the harmonium well. That is easier said than done, as he finds out in class when they stop singing along.
During lunch break, the kids complain about the class and wonder when Oishi is going to return. Apparently, she is out of the hospital, but she still cannot walk. They decide to run all the way to her village after lunch to visit her. It turns out to take them longer than anticipated and they end up tired and in tears. But they continue to walk. At one point, a bus passes them and they notice Oishi inside, so they run after her. The bus eventually stops and Oishi gets out in crutches. Their cries make her cry, and she has them get on the bus. They get to her house, and her mother makes food for them all. Later, they take a group photo on a beach. They say their goodbyes and the kids take a boat back to their village, where their parents were most likely only annoyed at them and not terrified that they had gone missing.
Some time later, the principal comes to talk with Oishi. He has decided for an older teacher (who was about to retire) to replace her, but she tells him that she had promised to return to school. Her mother says that she will be able to travel to the main school by bus within a few days, much easier than bicycling to the far away school. Oishi is not too fond of this proposal, as it would seem like she is breaking her promise, but her mother says that the principal is being very accommodating, on account of having been a friend of her father. At that moment, a man arrives, delivering gifts of food from the parents.
Oishi travels to the village by boat. All of her students…actually pretty much all of the kids from the school run to the beach to see her. She goes around to their houses to thank their parents for the gifts. Back at the school, she tells the kids that she had been transferred to the main school, and so she would not be teaching them for a while…well, five years to be more precise. The children cry and apologize for making her hurt her leg. Oishi tries to reassure them that it is okay, but she starts crying as well, to the bewilderment of the other teacher. Eventually, it is time for her to go, so the children and their parents bid her farewell with a song.
When we see them together again, five years will have passed, all of them will be older, Oishi will be engaged to be married, the Great Depression will have hit them all, and war will be on the horizon.
Based on the 1952 novel of the same name by Tsuboi Sakae, Twenty-Four Eyes was a bit hit in 1954. Learning that surprised me at first, given the movie’s somewhat skeptical take on the anti-communist fervor. Yet, looking further, it made a little more sense. Like with most historical films, this movie served both as a commentary on contemporary times and a bit of a nostalgic fantasy. Yes, Japanese people loved looking back fondly at times that were never meant to last, even over sixty years ago.
Shodoshima is not quite in the middle of nowhere, being surrounded by land on practically all sides. Still, the closest semi-big city of Okayama is about 27 kilometers away. Kobe is around 80 kilometers away, Osaka is around 100 kilometers away, Kyoto is around 140 kilometers away, and Tokyo is over 500 kilometers away. My point is that the setting of this movie is far from where the major decisions of Japan takes place. It is removed from the arenas of power as well as the hubs of modernity.
When the villagers refer to Oishi Hisako as a modern woman, they are mistaken, but not completely. Of course, her decision to wear Western-looking dress and ride a bicycle are simply based on practicality. It is her take on the war, however, that sets her apart. Her attitude is not so much “modern” as it is post-war. And to hold those thoughts years before the war even started makes her a woman outside of time. I had not really mentioned the war much in my plot summary, as it takes over the storyline much later on, but it is important to discuss regardless, at least the attitudes of the characters towards it.
The novel and the movie were made while the Japanese people were still coming to grips with the new order and their identity. The war of glory had resulted in loss and disaster. The warmongering of the previous decades has been beaten down into pacifism.The Americans, who had bombed them into oblivion, were in control of their country. The great military was no more. The Emperor is no longer a God. The empire has crumbled and the former colonies are screaming of Japan’s brutal atrocities. Is this who the Japanese people are? What have they become? What had they been? What did they do to deserve this? Twenty-four Eyes does not provide an answer, but shows a possible path that was not to be taken.
By the time 1933 rolls around, Japan had concocted a story as a pretext to take over the northeastern Chinese region of Manchuria and anti-Japanese violence had broken out in Shanghai. The movie refers to these events as Incidents and gives little context to them, which initially ticked me off, but these things happened far away. What does Japan’s takeover of Korea in 1910 or the takeover of previously German-owned areas of China after the World War I have to do with the people of Shodoshima? Nothing, right? Certainly the violence in China should not impact them either, but Japan is on edge regardless. The creation of the puppet government of Manchukuo in Manchuria has put Imperial Japan up against Communist Russia, so the Red Scare has hit Japan. And that scare reaches Shodoshima.
When another teacher is arrested for having Communist sympathies, Oishi protests that the reasoning given makes no sense. The other teachers try to ignore her and the principal tells her to avoid talking like that, lest she get accused of being a Communist. In fact, she could even get in trouble for trying to teach her students about capitalism and communism, regardless of how they may directly relate to current events. Of course, Japan had yet to be embroiled in the Revolutionary Chaos that was the 1960s, so it would be a bit too much to expect Oishi to rebel against her superiors too much, but she does let her anger be known.
Tied to this anti-communism is gearing up for war. Everyone seems to support war as a sign of patriotism. Whether they really believe in the cause or just do so out of fear of arrest is unclear. Whether it is pure or performative, excitement over the war is all around. As for the kids, it seems inevitable. The boys all assume that they will get drafted when they reach drafting age. One even looks forward to getting better pay than he would get working with his parents. Oishi is unhappy with all of this. Again, she is not political. She may know nothing about Korea or China, let alone the other places that Japan would brutalize. What Oishi does know is that these boys, whom she has grown fond of, would be sent away to die. Her fiancé would as well. If the war lasts long enough, any sons of hers will too. What good is that? That war is bad is not some deep concept like the conflict between capitalism and communism, but even something as simple as that is seen as too dangerous to say in public, let alone to children. Everyone bought into the death cult, cheering on these young boys to kill, kill, kill, kill, and die. She gets called a coward for questioning a society based on such a mindset. Well, if she is a coward, then she is a coward. But her cowardice turns out to be validated. The war would bring woe, humiliation, and shame upon the country. Oishi would be proven right. Yet, she could do nothing but watch helplessly as her country marched towards doom and took the people whom she loved down with it.
The movie jumps forward in time a few more times, so we see the trajectory of various students as they weave in and out of Oishi’s life. Some of them end up okay. Others get progressively worse. Some of it is due to the war; some of it is simply due to deprivation. What they all seem to have in common is a sense of fate. Only one character seems to break with expectations and attempts to follow her own dreams. Everyone else seems resigned to destiny. It is the Japanese way: they endure. Even Oishi can only try to gently coax the children to see an alternative, knowing that she is swimming against the tide that will drown them all.
The villagers of 1928 may feel intimidated by this supposedly modern, but to the viewers in 1954, she is the epitome of traditional Japanese womanhood in world beyond her control that does not appreciate her until everything is turned upside-down. So here are the Japanese in 1954, watching this movie. What do they see? They see a village isolated from the power structures that guide the fates of its residents. They see a village that was just minding its own business until the powers that be demanded its sacrifice while providing nothing in return. They see a woman who greets children with a smile and a song, treating them as if they were her own. They see children indoctrinated into a cult of martyrdom in service of a ruler whom they do not understand while the adults quake in powerless fear of an unseen force. They see that same matronly woman quietly wish the war away and grieve for the dead that have yet to die. They see her apolitical desire for peace politicized by people who never even see her. They see people who had no alternative but to do as they were told and suffer the consequences. They see who they would like to believe they were back then. They see themselves in Oishi and in those innocent children. Not necessarily faultless, but powerless to stop what was coming and unable to avoid getting swept up. Yeah, they were all naive. They were all pacifists. They were fundamentally good people caught in bad circumstances of someone else’s making. It could not be helped. They, too, were innocent victims of that terrible war.
Oh dear. Is this Japan’s Gone with the Wind????
Well…aww hell with it.
It is good that this movie does not actually depict the war itself, as I assume that it would come across less like the film Fires on the Plain, which I will get to at some point on WTF ASIA, and more like the film series The Human Condition, which I will definitely NOT get to. It is purposeful that the movie does not show the war, even as American forces got close to the mainland itself. Just as the people in power remained off screen, so did the enemy. The movie maintains a focus. This was all about the effects of war upon this community; even if it did not come to them, it pulled parts of them away.
Okay, but really, if I separate the political depoliticizing from my own movie-watching experience, I see a story of a community struggling with hardships that are beyond their control and just trying to make the best of it. More specifically, it is about the relationship between a kind teacher and her students as less than two decades change all of their lives, mostly for the worse.
Granted, it may be difficult to keep track of all twelve students and they do kind of blend together at times. The movie, however, does make pains to cast family members and look-alikes to play the same characters at different ages, so people end up looking familiar, even if you cannot immediately figure out who they are.
One could wax nostalgic about the good old days when there was no war and colonization was still considered legitimate. But life in the village was not that great. The simple life of this past is already in trouble by the time the movie starts. The villagers there are traditional and modest of means. Even the ones who are comparatively well-off are only a few bad steps away from going under. Back in 1928, various hardships and mishaps cause a few parents to permanently pull their children out of school. Why fear carpet bombing when a simple storm can tear down your house and flood everything? Just by the brief descriptions of the teachers the schools usually get, it is clear that this is a place that Japan has neglected. When the war does call for troops from the village, it is really just a call for corpses.
That said, the villagers are no saints. The parents are busybodies who think the worst of Oishi just because she intimidates them by being slightly middle class. When anti-communism rears its heads, it is the adults who get scared and use fear upon others. They also want the kids to remain ignorant of what the whole conflict means, keeping them mentally malleable for when the war finally does arrive.
The kids are…well, not the worst. I guess that Oishi did not mind being called Miss Pebble all of the time, though she lightly pushed back when she could. And most of their worst attitudes seem to be based on what their parents imposed on them. Yes, a few of them caused Oishi to need crutches for several months, but her class did attempt to walk all the way to her village to see her. Indeed, she is fond of her students and they are fond of her. Granted, she probably did have other students and they had other teachers between the years of 1928 and 1933, but I guess that having this group twice allows for a renewed fondness. And this fondness remains through the years. This initial distance, however, is symbolic of the gap between that fondness and the true connection that Oishi wishes that she could have with them.
Oishi does what she can for them, but there is only so much that she can do. Money problems force various students to drop out in order to work, sometimes taking them far away. When anti-communist patriotism takes hold, she is forbidden from providing them with a nuanced take on what is going on. And her expressions of desire for the boys to stay out of the war fall on deaf ears. Indeed, this is no Dead Poet Society situation. Oishi is not standing up to an unjust system. She is just trying to be there for those children, even when they cannot be there. Oishi is too modest to put herself out there, too gentle to push against the forces that want to silence even the most gentle dissent.
So, what do I see as the descendant of people who had to survive under foreign Japanese occupation during this time? I see a community ignored and abused by the very audience that saw themselves in the characters. If two generations of adults could fail their own innocent children so thoroughly, why should I be surprised that they so callously slaughtered my ancestors and then sincerely behaved as if it was not that bad?
Yet, this movie is not simply a misery-fest of little kids dying and a community falling apart. It is a celebration of living. Through the deprivation, the loss, the devastation, the longing, and the death, life continues. It is the Japanese trait of enduring what cannot be helped, for better or worse. It is of a bond between a teacher and her students that endures despite all of the forces that drive them apart. And as we see at the end of the film, some life may end, but other life has come and is ready to flourish.
Towards the start of the film, Oishi recalls looking at the faces of her young students and their twenty-four eyes. She expresses a hope that they never lose their sparkle. For the elegiac Japanese, it was obvious from the outset that this hope would go unfulfilled. But to persevere even when that hope fades is itself cause for hope. To maintain dignity through indignity. The innocence may crumble. The numbers may dwindle. But the sparkle remains. Beautiful, intimate, heartbreaking, and loving. This movie is wonderful.
WTF ASIA 115: Happy Together (Hong Kong: 1997, approx. 96 minutes)
WTF ASIA 116: Sea Fog (South Korea: 2014, approx. 111 minutes)