Twenty-Four Eyes

This paper was originally presented at the 5th Women’s Film Festival in Seoul (WFFIS) in April 2003 as part of an international forum on gender, media and democracy.

Firstly, I’d like to thank the WFFIS for inviting me to participate in this forum. Last year, I participated for the first time in the 4th WFFIS both as a spectator and as a commentator for the international forum, and it was such a great experience – seeing interesting films and meeting so many wonderful women. It is my great pleasure to join in the circle of such wonderful women again, whose dedication to and energy for the Festival I admire tremendously.

This year, I was given the topic “Visual Media Education in Asia: Gender, Media, and Democracy”. Honestly, I was at a loss initially as to what to speak about; I couldn’t think of anything appropriate to say. True, I do have a strong connection to every word in the topic, “visual, media, education, Asia, gender, and democracy”: I am an Asian living in a (relatively speaking) democratic society; I teach film studies; I am very much concerned about media culture in general; and certainly being a woman makes me confront the issue of gender on an everyday basis, though at a different degree. Nevertheless, I had to sit down and think about my talk. Maybe the dilemma of attempting to integrate all these elements could provide a starting point for this presentation, and a look at some questions fundamental to this multifaceted topic.

Oppositional Public Sphere or Pseudo-Public Sphere?

In fact, the more I thought about the topic, the more questions, rather than answers, it raised. I wondered if I should talk about something practical, even though I don’t teach film or video making? Or about the present situation of media education in Japan and women’s role in the field? Then I’d have to start by explaining how behind we are in terms of media education and literacy from the feminist perspective, though it’s true that little by little people are becoming more aware of the importance of introducing the perspective of “difference” and “locality”. Or, should I talk about democracy and women? But I feel ambivalent about this particular issue because we are bearing witness to various contradictions and different forms of domination in a democratic system. Is democracy for the majority, as democracy is operated and maintained by the rule of majority and guaranteed by free election? But if the majority exercises its political power to dominate and control the entire system, could we still call it democracy? Or is democracy for the minority, as it is a system based on the beliefs of freedom and equality between people, and operates according to the principles of social equality and respect for the individual within a community? But as we know all too well, the concepts of majority and minority are tricky ones and have never been clear-cut because they are and almost always have been affected by political powers and dominant ideological systems such as patriarchy. The constituent minorities (women, and many racial and ethnic groups) in a given society do not accord with, and often are out of proportion to, their attendant political power. Aside from the fact that democracy is nonetheless a superior social and political system in that it provides avenues to defend the rights and freedom of the individual within a community, the question is, often, who decides which system and principles of democracy to follow and for whom.

Indeed, at the moment I’m very distracted and disturbed by the immediacy of the present ominous situation; as I’m writing this manuscript, our world is facing the possibility of war against Iraq, in the name of democracy, or I should say, a democracy defined by and for the United States. The likelihood is that when I deliver this talk, war is likely to have already broken out. The US insistence on “democratising Iraq” is supposed to provide legitimacy for military attacks by great powers. And, of course, the role of media in constituting a “majority” on any given issue is crucial, and we cannot overestimate its power. Though I wish to maintain the difference between film and other broadcasting media like network, satellite and cable television, it appears, as the wave of globalisation continues, that major forms of media have increasingly become monolithic and homogenous, controlled by a handful of media and movie moguls enticing big money from various sources of capital. The dominance of US power in media and the movie world is quite apparent. In Japan, for example, while movie production has increased in the last few years, the absolute commercial power of Hollywood big productions financed by multinational corporations and organisations has never been stronger, and this, perhaps, is already a world phenomenon.

Alexander Kluge

Of course, I don’t intend to paint a too pessimistic picture here, but one is almost tempted to say that it seems more and more difficult to realise the possibility of creating a space as an “oppositional public sphere”, that is, according to German director Alexander Kluge, “a type of public sphere which is changing and expanding, increasing the possibilities for a public articulation of experience”. What seems to be still happening is the proliferation of the “pseudo-public sphere”, that is, again to borrow Kluge’s explanation, “a representative public sphere which is representative in so far as it involves exclusions” (1). I’ll get back to this important issue later.

On the other hand, one should definitely take notice of the emergence of digital technology and the expansion of information network accordingly. Yes, they are two fundamental elements of promoting globalisation but they are also possible instruments for creating “oppositional” or “alternative” public spheres, as we have already witnessed with the wider use of websites and electronic networking by independent filmmakers and media producers. As Kluge insists: “It is important to produce a public sphere as it is to produce politics, affection, protest” (2). Cyberspace and cyber communities can actually provide a forum for those with less political and economic power such as women and minority groups, and in doing so are providing a powerful tool for a “public articulation of experience”. Indeed, cyberspace and communities may present an almost utopian view of the world, breaking all physical boundaries, freeing individuals from spatially and nationally confined identities. They have the potential to reorder the public space, valorising pluralistic, transnational subjectivities (3). Or is this just an overly optimistic view that ignores the exigencies of a politically and economically motivated world?

Because I’m neither a scientist nor a philosopher, I cannot hypothesise about the future, nor give a definite sense of the direction that we should pursue. But I can comment on the changes that are impacting our lives. Technological developments do affect our lives profoundly and even perception itself, as we know well from past history. Although I do believe that new, digital, cyber, virtual production sites could pave new ways for producing an alternative mode of organising political and social space, I also strongly believe in the importance of the materiality and physicality of such space, as Professor Kim Soyoung insightfully elaborated in her presentation, “Links: Digital Activism, Net and Women’s Public Sphere” at this forum last year. Indeed, not only have most of the questions I have just raised already been discussed or implied in Professor Kim’s presentation, her presentation also articulated the significance of creating actual communal space, “real” events, film festivals like this, in order to search for a possibility of articulation in “trans-cinema”, a “cinema of translation and transition” (4).

Therefore, I would now like to take up where Professor Kim left off, so to speak. Instead of looking ahead, I will look to the past and propose a discussion specifically in the context of Japanese film history.

Historical and Social Meaning of Women’s Crying

Professor Kim ended her presentation by referring to a Korean word, yosongjang, a word that can mean both women at funerals and women’s public sphere. It can be read as a signifier for an alternative public space for both the expression and resistance of the excluded. It is extremely significant from my perspective that Professor Kim finds the woman’s public sphere in this particular affective space and very private, ritualistic, yet communal experience, where women shed tears for the deceased. Historically and culturally speaking, women’s experience in both private and public has had a strong connection to this affective performance, shedding tears, mourning the loss, sharing sorrow, from ritualistic funerals to melodramas, giving phantasmatic articulation for the unrepresentable. Crying, as one of the most symbolic acts of affective expression, be it passion, compassion, suffering, anger, or resentment, is regarded as one of the most personal experiences on the one hand, but on the other, degraded as well as one of the easiest and most banal expressions of such affective experiences, often condemned as a token of feminine manipulation. But as much of feminist writing about melodrama has forcefully shown, crying is a historical, social and cultural act, both private and public – to cite feminist film theorist, Joan Copjec, who goes as far as arguing that “crying was an invention of the late 18th century”, that is, “the emergence of a new literary form – melodrama” (5).

This affective performance of crying is closely embedded in history and it’s an inevitable element in the link between the private and the public, the personal and the political. However, it has hardly been discussed in terms of the production of a public sphere. On the contrary, traditional (male) critical discourses have often tried to exclude such affective experience because an affective involvement of any kind has almost always been regarded as something that obscures reason, subverting critical distance. Consider phrases like “hysterical reactions” that refer to something negative, destructive, potentially leading up to some kind of “uncontrolled mass” or “sensationalised public opinion”, etc. This is precisely one of the main reasons why women’s pictures had a long history of being looked down as irrational, cheap, worthless “tear-jerkers”. In sum, instead of paying attention to the historical, cultural and social function and significance of crying, dominant critical discourses avoided the confrontation of affectivity altogether, confining it to the domain of femininity, opposite to language and reason.

But one of the most distinctive characteristics of classical Japanese cinema is that woman’s tears were anything but her own. Moreover, the act of crying, especially women’s crying, has been an essential experience allowing the male subject to construct and reconstruct a national identity in times of social crisis – first in the process of modernisation in the 1920s and ’30s, and later that of post-war democratisation in the mid ’50s. In the former period, tears were shed as symbols of sacrifice, shed in forgiveness of a beloved man who chose worldly success over a woman’s love, as in the case of many shimpa melodramas. In the latter period, tears were shed to reconcile the irreconcilable, such as the collective war guilt, healing the wound of male subjectivity, in many dramas, melodramas and even comedies. But perhaps this process of appropriation and subordination of a woman’s affective expression to the dominant male subjectivity was most crucial to Japan’s transformation from a militaristic and imperialistic society to a “democratic” one after the defeat of the war. In this context, filmic experience provided a post-war “democratic public sphere” for male subjects while structuring the exclusion of women. In other words, women’s affective expression has never been the articulation of their own experience, at least in the world of dominant cinema. As Copjec says in a different context, explaining the function of the cry at the 18th century revolutions, the flood of tears was “not immediately the expression of a sentiment, of a bond of sympathy between citizens, but was rather evidence of the fact that something had become unassimilable in our society” (6). And it goes without saying that the flood of tears also functioned as a screen memory concealing entirely the traces of colonial subjects, though this important issue is beyond the scope of my talk and requires far greater examination.

What is at issue here is the relationship between historical trauma and the woman’s body, and the way in which affective discourses closely connected with femininity were used and abused in obscuring the structure of exclusion in an emerging democratic public sphere of post-war Japan. I cannot over-emphasise the crucial role of the media, particularly films, in this process. Japan had to go through a 180-degree turn of the entire social, economic, political, and cultural system after the defeat of World War Two. Various images and stories the media offered functioned as a bridge between the physical reality and the psychical reality, facilitating this drastic transition of society and people’s lives. It was a process of reclaiming a dominant fiction, consolidating a social hierarchy based on “domestic ideology”.

One of the most illuminating examples of such a phenomenon is Twenty-Four Eyes, a 1953 film directed by Kinoshita Keisuke, based on a novel written by a female author, Tsuboi Sakae. In this film, the female protagonist functions as a magical healer of the historical trauma of the defeat of the Pacific War, thus facilitating the difficult process of democratisation. The orchestrated flood of tears by women and children magically creates a sense of historical continuity, despite the intervention of the war, and reinvents the shattered national identity as “victim”, and never victimiser, thereby assimilating the “unassimilable”.

Why do Women Cry and For Whom?

Twenty-Four Eyes chronicles a female teacher’s life with her 12 pupils (thus twenty-four eyes) from 1928 to the 1950s. I would argue that if “Chushingura” (also known as the story of Revenge of the 47 Samurai) is an official “national” narrative for the male martyr, Twenty-Four Eyes is an unofficial national narrative for female compassion and sacrifice. This is arguably one of the most beloved Japanese films of all time (even in 1983, it ranked number one in a survey on favourite films). Many critics consider it a phenomenon, a real “event”. According to Sato Tadao, no other post-war film was able to elicit such a flood of tears from the audience. It was made two years after the end of the American occupation in 1951, when the actual, rather than the imposed, post-war period began. Also, at that time, a strong protest against rearmament was occurring – in 1954, a year later, the Japan Defence Force was formed. In 1955, two years after this film was made, the government declared, “We have emerged from the post-war”. Many people extolled the film as a strong “anti-war” message because of its focus on the sufferings of women and especially children as victims of war, which to the contemporary audience was regarded as a clear critique of war and rearmament.

Since I don’t have enough time to give you the full story, let me point out the basic premise of the film. The first obvious characteristic is the absence of adult men; the film depicts a world of women, children, and old people. The female protagonist, played by one of the most famous actresses in Japan, Takamine Hideko, comes from a big city to a small local island in the Setouchi Sea. She is at first presented as a “modern girl”, wearing a skirt, riding a bicycle; she is clearly presented as the “other” for the local people. Children initially reject her because she is “different”. They play a trick, causing her to break her leg. Now that she is symbolically castrated, she is accepted by this closed local community. Then her close relationship with the children starts. The narrative follows their relationships, shifting focus on 12 different children: some girls who have to leave the island because of poverty, some boys who are caught up in the whirlwind of militarist discourse; finally, most of the boys are killed in the war, only one survives, and only at the cost of his sight.

Twenty-Four Eyes

In almost every dramatic sequence, there is a big melodramatic moment in which the heroine cries over the children’s suffering – it’s almost as if the film orchestrates the flood of tears to the extent that the act of crying feels almost independent from the narrative. But her tears are a sign of her inability to act: she cannot do anything but cry with and for them. Her tears are not for herself. Her desire, her passion, her affects are basically for “others”, though the very tears she cries also indicate her ability to identify with the sufferers. The film constantly encourages in the viewers a strong identification with the heroine. Strangely however, despite the children’s suffering, which is supposed to be the reason for the heroine’s tears on the narrative level, the film also manages to provide the audience with a kind of ritual space for affective release. Thus, the viewing experience of this film has become a pseudo-funeral without the audience knowing exactly why and for what it is crying. Twenty-Four Eyes emphasises the innocence of the children, who have no responsibility for their suffering. All the suffering in this film is from without; even the war itself is depicted as an external force of history. There is no sense of “subjectivity” here. Women cry for the suffering of others, and if they have their own reason, it’s because of their powerlessness. Everything within is innocence and subject to outside forces. Victims are only within their small community. In fact, the heroine embodies the figure of the benevolent mother, a typical representation of woman from the traditions of Japanese Mahayana Buddhism. According to Ôgoshi Aiko, in this tradition, womanhood is mainly defined as “comforting motherhood”, which “exists only for and is totally depended on by men and children so as to give them physical comfort and devotion, very unlike the Holy Mother who is respected for her inherent motherhood” (7). Such a mother figure, Ôgoshi continues, “is gratifying to men not because she leads the male to the sacred, but because she is with him in the infernal torture by physical unification”. I might add, this kind of mother figure is, perhaps, not limited to Japan but to a certain extent, an Asian characteristic.

However, what is most interesting about the heroine is that she is not a typical traditional type of woman, as in many pre-war shimpa melodramas – if you have seen any major heroines of Mizoguchi Kenji’s representative melodramas, you’ll see this type. Our heroine is a career woman – she’s a teacher, very articulate (she even openly criticises the authorities during the war!), and chooses her own husband who is very democratic. And yet, as we have seen, only her tears are pre-modern, so to speak. Only by crying is she allowed entry into the exclusivity of the local community, and in the virtue of her ability to cry her modernity is reconciled as something “acceptable”.

It is important to underline that the heroine represents both pre-war and post-war values. But as I have roughly sketched, despite such characterisation, in the end her body and her affects are the culminating site for reconciliation and redemption. In other words, she is the place of the suffering and the struggle, even the protest, but she herself is excluded from this very place, though paradoxically her presence conceals this very structure of exclusion.

Such is the paradox of women’s crying in many classical films in the 1950s, especially between 1953 and 1957, a crucial period for confirming a sense of national identity and assimilating it into the “democratic public sphere” of post-war Japan (8). If a political history of the era provides a domain where economic and ideological changes occur, a media history would surely offer a site where women’s affective experience is used and abused for healing the traumatic wound, which history itself is attempting to conceal. I do not know if every democratic system operates according to the structure of exclusion, be it the patriarchal mode of domination based on gender difference or that based on nationality (9). But I would imagine in many other Asian cultures similar phenomena have occurred in the history of cultural representation.

Interestingly, however, at the very end of the film, there’s a moment in which the heroine cries not because she feels compassion for the pain that the children suffer, but because she is filled with love for them – it’s almost as though she has given her absolute self. It is a strange moment; “where formerly it had been a narrative of sacrifice, it suddenly becomes a narrative of love” (10). I do not wish here to simply criticise how films have appropriated women’s affective experience and performance in order to fabricate a new collective memory, while putting the painful memory of victimisation and atrocity into oblivion; I would also like to stress a perspective from gender criticism which recognises the fact that the utilisation of women’s experience, especially an affective one, is inevitable for a political and social transformation, such as democratisation. Upon this realisation, we urgently recognise the need for reclaiming our affective experience. By realising this use and abuse, and by creating our own critical “space”, reclaiming our affective and bodily experience and discourse, we will be able to create our own “public sphere”. If we depend too much on technology or media, without paying attention to the ways in which the dominant patriarchal mode of domination has always attempted to exploit women’s affective experience, our cybersphere will also be appropriated.

That is why I indicated earlier that we reclaim our space, both material and physical. And as we define that reclaimed space, we network and share our affective discourse, as I do with you today. And we also must in reclaiming our space, reclaim our tears, regardless of “its” history, even if it is that of post-colonist subjectivity. We cry, in both senses of the word, for the articulation of the excluded, and the unrepresented. And we cry too for ourselves, for in a world in which our realities are sometimes virtual, and sometimes not even our own, our tears will not betray us.

The author wishes to thank Susan Anicad for her generous help and friendship.


  1. Alexander Kluge, “On Film and the Public Sphere”, New German Critique, 24-5, Fall/Winter, 1982, p. 211, 212.
  2. Kluge, 1982, p. 214.
  3. For example, in an article entitled “Korean Residents in Japan and the Korean Network” (Bulletin of the Korean Scholarship Foundation, no. 23, 2000, p. 24-31) Sang-Jung Kang, a prominent Japanese political science scholar and one of the few scholars who has come out as a Korean permanent resident in Japan (so-called zainichi Koreans), proposes a somewhat similar notion of alternative public space for Korean diasporas, a “diasporic public sphere”.
  4. Kim Soyoung, “Links: Digital Activism, Net and Women’s Public Sphere”, 2002 WFFIS International Forum: Feminist Film/Video Activism and the Power of Image in Asia, p. 73-85.
  5. Joan Copjec, “More! From Melodrama to Magnitude”, Endless Night: Cinema and Psychoanalysis, Parallel Histories, ed. Janet Bergstrom, University of California Press, Los Angeles, 1999, p. 249-275.
  6. Copjec, 1999, p. 252.
  7. Ôgoshi Aiko, “Buddhism and Sexuality”, in Ôgoshi A. and Minamoto Sunko, Demolishing Buddhism, Daito Shuppansha, Tokyo, 1994, 124 (my translation). In analysing how Buddhism defined female sexuality in Japan, Ôgoshi stresses that it has created a notion of “sexual salvation” of men by women. The Mahayanist notion of “comfort” and “sexual salvation” definitely gives cultural legitimacy to the violence toward women, so hypocritically called “comfort women”, who were forced to be sex labourers during the war, but this is again beyond the scope of my topic here.
  8. For a more detailed discussion of this film and two other films made by Kinoshita Keisuke, see my article, “Looking for the Lost Phallus: Three Popular Films of Kinoshita Keisuke”, Film Study 14, 2000, pp 2-20. A revised version is forthcoming in Politics of Cinema, eds Hase Masato and Nakamura Hideyuki, Seikyusha.
  9. It is important to take notice of the presence of Nagisa Oshima, who started directing films at Shochiku Studio, where Kinoshita was one of the major influences. Oshima was actually one of the first directors, as early as in the early 1960s, who insisted upon addressing the issue of the Korean victims during and after the war, whose presence was totally invisible in the “democratic” public sphere in post-war Japan, as discussed in Kang’s article.
  10. Copjec, 1999, 269. Copjec is discussing here the famous last scene of Stella Dallas (King Vidor, 1937). I do not intend to claim that the last scene of Twenty-Four Eyes is comparable to that of Stella Dallas, but there is something stronger in impact in the heroine’s cry in this last scene than in others, implying a sense of certain resistance to the powerless vulnerability of her tears. Nonetheless, I am not providing here a “reading against the grain of Twenty-Four Eyes as possibly a “feminist film”, but rather, such an entertainment production constitutes an important element in recreating the dominant fiction, in the process of nationalisation of the female subject. Furthermore, as I implied earlier, the invisibility of the war victims, as in many films of the period, is deeply problematic, though already at the time of the release, some film critics posed critique against the lack of this perspective in Twenty-Four Eyes. To add, it may be interesting to consider this phenomenon in the context of “the inability to mourn”, a post-war phenomenon in Germany detected and delineated by A. and M. Mitscherlich in The Inability to Mourn: Principles of Collective Behavior, translated by Beverley R. Placzek, Grove Press, New York, 1975.

About The Author

Saito Ayako teaches in Meiji Gakuin University in Tokyo, Japan. She has written articles on Hitchcock, Godard, Akerman, and Fassbinder, along with Mizoguchi Kenji and Kinoshita Keisuke, and has recently co-authored a book on actress Wakao Ayako.