One of the most unabashedly sentimental movies you'll ever see, Twenty-Four Eyes may also be one of the most effective anti-war movies, without presenting bloody scenes of people being killed and maimed. Hideko Takamine plays Oishi, a young teacher who begins her career in 1928 on Shodo Island in the Inland Sea of Japan, teaching a first-grade class of 12 -- six boys and six girls -- the 24 eyes of the film's title. We follow her life, and through her point of view the lives (and some deaths) of her first pupils, for the next 18 years, as the world and the war encroach upon a peaceful, pastoral setting. Where Kinoshita's Morning for the Osone Family (1946) was claustrophobic in its presentation of life during wartime, Twenty-Four Eyes shows how the entrapment of people by war can occur in a place where there are no visible signs of the conflict. The natural setting remains undisturbed. No planes fly overhead, no bombs are dropped on the village, but the menace of war threatens the minds and hearts of the most vulnerable: the children Oishi teaches. The most chilling scenes are the ones in which young men are sent off to the war, as flag-waving crowds sing bloodthirsty tributes to the glory of dying in battle for their country. Kinoshita and cinematographer Hiroshi Kusuda reinforce the bitter irony by their restraint. They don't darken the atmosphere: It's the same lovely natural setting. Only the human beings in it have changed. I have to admit to feeling the movie is overlong, and that Kinoshita ladles on the pathos a bit too heavily. The cast weeps floods of tears, and the soundtrack features not only the Japanese folk songs that the children learn but also some old-fashioned Western parlor songs: "Annie Laurie," "The Last Rose of Summer," "Home, Sweet Home," "Auld Lang Syne," and, most curiously, "What a Friend We Have in Jesus." But repress the cynic or the realist, and you may find it moving, too.
One of the myths of war is that the enemy moves in lockstep, from the commander-in-chief down to the lowliest citizen. So those of us who are (just barely) old enough to remember something about living through World War II, the myth of Japan as a monolithic force lingers, even though 70 years of peace with the Japanese and a wholesale assimilation by the West of their culture, from sushi to anime, has effaced old hostilities. Morning for the Osone Family gives us a valuable sense of the way things were -- or at least may have been. Made in the year after the surrender of Japan, after ideological censorship had ceased (though the American occupation imposed its own censorship, which is why you'll find no mention of the atomic bomb in Japanese movies made just after the war), Morning for the Osone Family gives us a portrait of what a dissenting family went through during the war. How accurate the portrait may be is up to question -- just as we could question the accuracy of the "home front" movies made in the United States during and after the war. But Kinoshita and screenwriter Eijiro Hisaita give us a plausible account of what might have happened to a widow, Fusako (Haruko Sugimura), and her three sons, her daughter, and her brother-in-law in the waning years of the war. One son is imprisoned for writing against the war; the daughter is forced to break off her engagement to a young man because of the political implications of what her brother did; another son, a pacifist who wants to be an artist, is drafted and dies of pneumonia in a hospital; the youngest son, embracing the militarist propaganda, enlists and is killed. And then there is the domineering presence of the brother-in-law, a colonel (Toshinosuke Nagao) who despises the way Fusako has raised her children to doubt the glory of the Japanese military. When his house is destroyed by bombing, he moves in with the Osone family and takes over the household. Devastated by the surrender, he begins to stockpile food in their house, even as starvation spreads across the land. The film takes place on a single set, which only emphasizes the sense of a world closing in on the family.