Shimizu's haunting film about traveling war orphans
I recently watched Children of the Beehive, a haunting post-World War II film by one of my favorite directors, Hiroshi Shimizu. Although it’s made in 1948, and beyond the usual scope of my site, I love it so much and it’s so hard to find that I feel I should discuss it here. It has an artistic and historic value that I hope raises it from obscurity.
Children of the Beehive is about a band of orphans who follow a repatriated World War II soldier who is jobless himself and has no family. Like many other Shimizu films, it’s set on the road, on a journey where rootless people meet others and attempt to establish some tentative connection. These orphans are not cute victim-sorts, at least not obviously. Sometimes they come across as clever thieves. Mostly, though, they are just ordinary kids who have noplace to go because their parents have died in the course of the war. They wander to survive. When the soldier meets them, they’re working for a one-legged thief who, like everyone else, is just trying to get by. (This movie has no villains.) They end up following the soldier who goes from place to place taking on fieldwork; the boys begin to grasp the benefits of labor. Although reluctant at first, the soldier also teaches them to become better people by helping them to understand others, and he becomes committed to helping them get an education. (When a group of boys runs away from them, one of the orphans calls the group “weak.” The soldier explains that they’re not weak, they’re afraid, and it’s up to the boys to adopt the right approach.) In the course of the film, the soldier also becomes more generous and less isolated (and even gives up smoking!), meaning that he has gained something from the boys. And they meet a young woman along the way, someone else who has noplace to go and is trying to find a safe spot. This is the story.
The actual meaning of the film arises slowly as we come to know the children and, like the soldier, develop compassion for them. Not pity. The film pivots upon a tragedy that is truly poignant, slowly and subtly developed. This makes it all the more troubling.
Like other Shimizu films, the setting here is extremely important, as we go to parts of Japan that aren’t usually shown in films. We bump along the road in trucks and we walk. The movie is in constant motion. Many of the film’s shots are from distances — across bridges, up and down long flights of stairs, down roads to the horizon — and are quite beautiful. (Even with my bad print, I could tell that at one time, they must have been gorgeous.) The towns they visit are identified, giving it a bit of travelogue quality, similar to Shimizu’s Mr. Thank You. The film’s most unforgettable scene, for me, is set in the ruins of Hiroshima. There is no big deal made of this. No dramatic dialogue — no direct discussion of what happened there. The strongest statement, aside from the destruction itself, is a shot of a boy who walks around with his arms outstretched in the shape of a cross, in front of crumbling monuments that evoke headstones. Ultimately, a scene develops between one of the boys and the young woman, and it becomes an allegory for what took place among these beautiful ruins. I’ll never forget this scene.
Although this isn’t all that important, I was impressed that the young woman (Natsuke Masako) is not wearing make-up and isn’t beautiful; she is in baggy pants for nearly all of the film. She isn’t played for sexual attractiveness (though there’s a sense, a hope, that maybe she and the soldier will stay together, even though they rarely have a direct conversation). She’s a fellow traveler who serves, through no real effort on her part, as a mother figure. (We certainly don’t see her adopting the maternal role in any subservient way; it’s just something that happens.)
The film on its own is beautiful and moving. Beyond that, though, is the fact that the orphans are actually played by war orphans, children that Shimizu took in, adding another element of realism. Like the soldier, Shimizu helped them to survive and provided them with schooling. I actually didn’t know this when I watched the film. Now that I know it, I find it even more profound. The children are good actors, too, natural and at ease with the camera. When the children reveal glimpses of their stories, I now wonder if they were true.
Children of the Beehive is, sadly, extremely difficult to find. I found a copy from an ebay seller (I call him “my source,” ha) and it has English subtitles. I hope that Criterion will include this if it releases a second Shimizu box set. Apparently, his films are just hard sells, probably because they are rather slowly paced, have no samurai, and are too subtle for most modern audiences. It’s such a shame.