It was odd to watch this film knowing that it was such a rare opportunity. The print from the Kawakita Memorial Film Institute in Kamakura City is possibly the only viewing print in circulation. It has been brought over to the UK by Jasper Sharp for his Zipangu Fest 2010 and will get further screenings in London and possibly Bristol. I saw it at the Breaking Boundaries Japanese Cinema Symposium and it has also received a second Leeds showing in the Leeds International Film Festival as outlined by Keith.
Shimizu Hiroshi was an experienced director based at Shochiku in the 1930s and Children of the Beehive stands up well as a product of an industry coming to terms with life under occupation up until 1952 – which meant censorship issues but also creative opportunities unavailable during the wartime period and the repression of the military authorities. The film’s story is simple. A soldier returning to Japan arrives at a railway station on his way ‘home’. Unlike all the other returnees, he is not sure where he wants to go. He befriends a gang of small boys who are operating simple scams around the station and attempts to persuade them to join him and look for work. Eventually he admits that, like them, he is an orphan and he suggests that he will take them to his old orphanage. That’s about it really – their adventures along the way (and the people they meet) create the drama.
In his introduction Tony Rayns warned us against thinking that the film was ‘influenced’ by Italian neo-realism. Certainly it seems highly unlikely that Shimizu would have seen any of the Italian post-war films at this point. Having said that, it is inevitable that anyone who has seen Rossellini, Visconti or de Sica will recognise many of the elements in Children of the Beehive. The most striking formal aspect is the location photography and the extreme long shots to show the group working and travelling across rural Japan. The genre most associated with children in the ruined environment of post-war combatant countries is the ‘rubble film’ – named as such in Germany, but also familiar in Italy and in Japan. Usually though, the story is set in the ruins of cities. Here, much of the narrative focuses on the roads and railways, fields and harbours, mountains and forests. (The film is a rail enthusiast’s dream.) Having said that, some of the most dramatic moments depict a march through the ruins of Hiroshima (and some early re-builds) to a hill-top overlooking the city and a dénouement in a docks area where a sign clearly announces that the area is out of bounds to Occupation Forces (the portrayal of such signs was supposedly banned by the Occupation Censors).
This is an enormously uplifting film with a positive ending. Jasper Sharp’s notes suggest that Shimizu recruited the children himself and subsequently paid for their schooling. He had previously been a director at Shochiku and a colleague of Ozu Yasujiro (they were roughly the same age). It is perhaps worth comparing this film with Ozu’s Record of a Tenement Gentleman made just a year earlier – especially in terms of how Ozu represents the Tokyo districts and how he handles the relationship of an older woman with an abandoned boy. Children of the Beehive was Shimizu’s first film as an independent director and his production company was known as ‘Beehive Films’. He made a sequel in 1950 and several films featuring children during his whole career. The ‘positive’ resolution of the narrative also suggests a comparative study with the heartbreaking anime Graveyard of the Fireflies (1988) – a story about two children’s struggle for survival in the countryside in 1944 after the fire-bombing of Kobe.