not in our stars, but in ourselves
Naughty, naughty – away for two whole days with nary a word. I know. I apologize, dear reader(s). Life always gets in the way of fun, but not for too long.
Since I’m commanding you all (if you’re in Melbourne) to attend the Cinémathèque’s Kinoshita season, I thought I’d better give you all a more definite idea of what it will be like. He’s immensely popular in Japan, but much less well known outside his own country. One of his best-known and -loved films is Twenty-Four Eyes (1954) – and while it’s sometimes just on the border of sickly sweet, it always stays on the right side of the line.
Beginning in 1928, it is the story of Hisako Oishi (Hideko Takamine). She’s a new first-grade teacher in a poor fishing village, and her very arrival sets tongues wagging and eyebrows raising. Rather than the more usual, traditional kimono, she shows up wearing a suit. Rather than walk, take the bus or a boat, she rides a bicycle to get to school.
With deep concern in their voices, the townspeople whisper that she’s one of those “modern” teachers. And so she is: on her first day of school, she learns her twelve students’ nicknames. She laughingly lets them call her Miss Pebble – since Oishi means “big stone” but she’s quite small. She teaches them folk songs rather than more serious school songs. She takes them for frolics in the woods and on the seashore. The children adore her, and she adores them.
After an injury prevents her from being able to ride her bicycle to school, she is transferred to the secondary school to teach sixth grade. The world goes into a fair amount of chaos between 1928 and 1933, when her original twelve students return to her classroom. Oishi wants them to believe in themselves, and do whatever they want, even (especially) if it means escaping the cycle of poverty in which their parents are trapped. However, most of the boys see the best way out as joining the military. Some of the girls assume that they’d better not bother thinking about their hopes for the future, as any and all hopes will surely be dashed when they’re obligated to drop out of school and take care of their families. Oishi sees all of this and despairs, and decides that she can’t teach anymore – especially not when the principal is ordering her to stop spouting pacifist nonsense, and start toeing the national line in favor of militarism. Years continue to pass; Oishi has children of her own; her twelve students grow up and die in the war or of disease; and she continues to insist that all her children – biological and coincidental – think for and believe in themselves.
All together now: awwwww.
As I say, it is extremely sweet. Sometimes a bit too much so. But the kids – especially when they’re little first graders – are genuinely adorable. And Takamine is an extraordinary, lovely, graceful actress. I am pleased to find, by googling and wikipediaing, that she was very popular in Japan. As well she should have been. She’s extremely subtle in the way she changes over the 20 years in the film, but there is a vast difference between the Oishi of 1928 and the Oishi after the war. From fresh-faced optimism to weary grace, with hardly any obvious alterations along the way; and yet, she’s changing all the time. The kids all grow up quite visibly, but she grows up in her very soul. I am no actor, but I can’t imagine all that many actors who would be able to convey spiritual growth in such a flowing, imperceptible way.
While I know some very barebones facts about Japanese history during World War II, I am of course an ugly American, and don’t know much. The events within the film would certainly make more sense if you knew more about the rise of ultra-nationalism, militarism, and conservatism in Japan – but even if you only know that those are the keywords, you’ll get the idea. Oishi is “modern” enough to understand, better than nearly all the other adults in her school (or in positions of power in most governments), that conditioning children to accept and embrace the inevitability of war will always lead to war’s inevitability. There is real honor in peace and in dreaming, she insists; there is only a sad, useless honor in death in action. For the children born after WWII, that may have seemed fairly obvious. Kinoshita, however, obviously mourns the loss of the children who were born into a war machine. It’s a shame more world leaders haven’t taken that idea more to heart.