Wednesday, February 1, 2012

#442: Twenty-four Eyes

(Keisuke Kinoshita, 1954)

A lot of women cry in Twenty-Four Eyes. They cry in just about every segment, and the film is two-and-a-half hours long, so it really adds up. It's Japanese, so it's never over-the-top crying. And the film is shot in that Ozu-style-melodrama way, so everyone is sitting around crying quietly while they talk in hushed tones and move through domestic spaces. This makes the crying easier to take; while Twenty-four Eyes is sad, it's not emotionally overwhelming.

I don't begin with this observation as a slight to the film, but simply because that was my perhaps overly superficial thought throughout its running time: "Jeez, this scene ends with crying, too." The film is on the longer side, covers a wide stretch of time, and has a great deal to say about the most important Japanese generation of the 20th century, the men who went to war and then came home defeated, intent on rebuilding their country into a global force. This makes it a capital "I" Important film, and really there are two kinds of those: the ones like Boys Don't Cry or Do the Right Thing which very consciously challenge audiences with their social statements, and the ones like Schindler's List or Philadelphia that are geared towards a larger audience, uninterested in complex realities and confronting their viewer with their own role in whatever "issue" the film centers around. Twenty-four Eyes belongs to the latter category, firmly targeting the better angels of Japanese culture both before and after the war. I wouldn't go so far as to call it a "Women's Picture," but it has that air around it.

The irony, however, is that this ostensibly "safer" anti-war film is actually more radical than any later Japanese film that questioned the actual actions of the Japanese soldiers during the war. When anti-war films are made about war crimes or even just the horror of actual combat and the tragedy of innocent fallen soldiers, it leaves room for interpretation. Surely there must be some legitimate fight worth fighting? But when war is engaged on a more personal level, as a question of fathers and sons, mothers and daughters, it becomes more difficult to find the good fight, the worthy cause. Twenty-four-Eyes makes its most powerful points in this regard - not by questioning Japan's motives or actions in the war, but by questioning the values of war itself. No country is served by sending its sons to death.

Most tear-jerker teacher movies are sentimental love letters to youth and the infinite paths the future offers. The tears come in when someone - usually the teacher just before dying or retiring - regrets greatly the path he (as in most movies, it's almost always a he) has chosen, only to realize he has touched so many other lives due to his own self-sacrifice. It's like a mini It's a Wonderful Life. Thankfully, Twenty-four Eyes is fairly uninterested in this (though that shot of the bike at the end is a killer). Sentimentality has its place in the film, but the purpose of the story has everything to do with the war and its impact on civilians, especially women who failed to understand the macho fascist culture that rose up around them, the dark side of the quiet honor of the average Japanese person. It might be a whitewashed story of the Japanese role in World War II, but it doesn't whitewash war itself - in fact, refuses to acknowledge it on its own terms altogether. This redeems the film's melodrama and makes Twenty-four Eyes relevant war viewing even after much more graphic and honest films have followed.

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