I didn't quite know what to expect from this film ... but as the last of its 156 minutes played, I wished it could have been even longer, although that would have meant a few more lumps in the throat & teary-eyed moments. It's a deeply moving film, and its sentimental scenes are truly earned & not the least bit gratuitous or pandering.
The story: a young woman begins her first teaching job on a small island village in Japan, with 12 students in her first grade class (hence the 24 eyes of the title). This opening sequence is charming & gentle, with the worst of the children's problems & woes easily mended with a few kind words & an understanding heart.
But as the children grow older, remaining in touch with their beloved teacher over the years, the harsher aspects of life begin to take their toll. First the Great Depression, then the rise of Japanese militarism -- and the teacher can only watch, sick at heart, as promising futures are dashed & redirected by family & social pressures.
While set in Japan during a specific period of history, the themes are timeless & universal, sad to say. When Japan continues its buildup to the Second World War, the patriotic songs & marches seem all too familiar -- as do the warnings from higher-ups in the school system that their job is to create obedient, patriotic citizens, willing to serve the state without question. It's made clear to our troubled teacher that any mention of other, antiwar possibilities are strictly forbidden, lest she be accused of being "a Red."
Yet she does what she can, telling her male students that she'd be just as proud of them for becoming farmers or clerks or rice merchants, rather than becoming soldiers. The boys, of course, are caught up in shining visions of military glory & honor, without the slightest notion of the dark & bloody reality behind them.
At the same time, she also struggles to help her female students become more than what family & society have prepared them to be ... not always successfully. Why does she struggle against such hopeless odds? Not so much for political or ideological reasons, but because of her individual compassion & spirit. These struggles even go on within her own family, as her husband is drafted & her own young sons dream of becoming soldiers themselves.
Covering nearly 20 years, the film has an elegiac tone, a sense of memories washing up over & over again upon the same shore which opens & closes the film. Hideko Takamine is superb as the teacher, nicknamed "Miss Pebble" by her students, changing over the years from the fresh-faced young woman who appears in Western clothes, riding a bicycle through the shocked village, to the middle-aged woman both wounded & tempered by loss & grief, still refusing to surrender to despair.
156 minutes may sound daunting, but don't let that stop you from watching this richly rewarding film. Most highly recommended!