I didn’t really understand what Sakae Tsuboi was doing at first in her book TWENTY-FOUR EYES. The reputation of this novel is that it is ostensibly anti-war. The last third of the story is definitely that showing how the mindset of blind patriotism led the Japanese to a sort of mass suicide in World War II.
But even before that, TWENTY-FOUR EYES carefully lays out the Japanese traditions of honor and not questioning authority and their negative effects on the life of the citizens. It also shows the hard life of fisherman and villagers in a small, remote, seaside Japanese town as seen through the eyes of a new schoolteacher.
The schoolteacher, Ms. Osoi, the book’s heroine, enters and re-enters the lives of her students for the next 20 years starting when they are children. By establishing such a well constructed foundation, the anti-war statement when it comes seems much more part of a larger social critique rather than the usual kneejerk political expression crudely translated into fiction.
I did have a hard time keeping the names of the 12 students straight in my head but the edition of the book I read had a list of their names at the beginning with a brief description so that was helpful.
This is a very subtle book and it tells you things so carefully and with so much control that when it finally slips in the knife and you see how brutish, violent, death obsessed, and authoritarian life in Japan was at the first half of the last century, you don’t feel you are being lectured to or manipulated.
The sad dinner party that ends the book wherein Ms. Osoi, at this point a war widow who has also endured the death of a daughter, reunites with what’s left of her students in 1946 (many of those still living have experienced harsh fates – one blinded in combat, one a prostitute etc.) is very emotional. At that point the book came together for me and I understood I was reading the work of not only an exceptional writer but an exceptional plotter who knew how to craft a message story that didn’t beat its reader over the head….Like the mother who carefully disguises medicine for her child in something edible.