Over the course of the 20th Century, from every nation, from every year, many a film has disappeared into the ether. There are a variety of reasons for this, perhaps they did not gain significant critical or audience success at the time and as a consequence never managed to secure wider viewing after their initial release, think about the number of films released in the UK on any given month, even a dedicated cinephile isn’t likely to see more than ten of them - what happens to the rest? Dig out an old issue of a film magazine from ten years ago and flick through the review section, notice how many films you’ve completely forgotten about or don’t remember at all – where did they go? Why have some proved durable while others were ephemeral? Another potential reason is a lack of directorial acclaim, the likes of Ingmar Bergman, Fredrico Fellini, Billy Wilder, Rainer Werner Fassbinder, Yasjiro Ozu, Akira Kurosawa and many others, have a few notable and largely undisputed masterpieces that guarantee dozens of their earlier, often inferior films are now widely available. There is also the matter of correct archiving, many movies are lost or destroyed or literally fade away as the film negative deteriorates; sometimes there are international rights issues, sometimes the films have just never been subtitled for foreign audiences - there are a plethora of reasons. Ergo it would be short sighted to assume that every great film ever made has survived through the annals of time, as cinema enthusiasts we are tantalised by the possibility that some forgotten classic is still hidden away waiting to be unearthed by a tireless archivist searching for majesty in cinema’s rubble. Hiroshi Shimizu’s Children of the Beehive (1948) is one such classic. Set immediately after the World War II, a Japanese soldier returns to his homeland with thousands of others like him, at the train station he watches as his comrades in arms file away from him down the station platform - he chooses to take his own route. A group of orphaned children soon adopt him as their surrogate guardian; they’ve been scavenging and begging at the behest of an older one-legged vagrant who runs the orphans like a small criminal organisation, conning wealthier members of society out of there goods and then selling them on. But soon the orphans abandon him in favour of this nearly silent warrior who has been deeply affected by the war. Crucially they choose him, rather than he choose them, when they ask for a cigarette from him he gives them the pack, when they ask for a bit of his bread he gives them his entire roll. His stoic generosity encourages them one by one to stay with him without a word of encouragement or enticement. Together they travel the country in search of work and an orphanage for the children to settle down and hopefully have a better life than grifting on the streets.
From the outset the film wears its cathartic agenda on its sleeve, by not following the other soldiers, our protagonist symbolically abandons violence and destruction in favour of helping the helpless and rebuilding the community, his path is a healing one, rather than returning to his home life in shame, he takes the more prideful path. An orphan himself, he is in a sense, looking inward and ensuring that those children who reflect his own past do not follow in his footsteps. Children being the future of any society and also the most vulnerable to corruption, violence and death; these particular children could potentially have a life of joy and rewards that was never available to him.
Children of the Beehive isn’t so much about the loss of innocence as it is about the teaching children self-respect. The soldier demonstrates to the orphans one by one that food tastes better after a hard days work; sure they could just steal the potato but it’s ultimately more satisfying as the reward for effort and labour. After the soldier has officially taken the infants under his wing he smells cigarette smoke on one of them and confronts them about the dangers of smoking; he leads by example and promises not to smoke again if they won’t. Where their previous shady master would have probably encouraged such behaviour or at least would have been uninterested in the health of the children, the former soldier has a different set of values, values the boys learn for themselves. In one of many amusing scenes, a boy gives out the potatoes they’ve earned to the others who haven’t worked for them, again the soldier provides the required moral code; just because the others haven’t worked doesn’t mean that they shouldn’t share; the boy drops a potato into the hands of the sleeping vagrant, then retracts it a second later and replaces it with a smaller potato, the principle has been learnt, but it doesn’t mean that those undeserving get the best of the selection.
Orphaned children were common in post-World War II Japan, famously an estimated five thousand were left in China towards the end of the conflict; on the Japanese mainland the problem was equally prevalent. With only a crippled welfare state to guarantee their safety (most of the energy and money had been invested in the war machine) these children would often resort to a life of crime, be vulnerable to attack, accidents, malnutrition and a myriad of other potential dangers. Children of the Beehive is a rare example of overtly socially conscious Japanese cinema, a dissection of a social problem but with a somewhat fantastical solution in the form of the returning soldier. The solution is less important than the addressing of the problem itself; the film pre-dates the emergence of the other Japanese greats of the 1950’s, unlike the works of Ozu, Kurosawa, or Mikio Naruse, it is directly examining the war and the negative social consequences of the conflict, as the title suggests if we’re to take “beehive” to euphemistically mean World War II. “Children” is also appropriate for the title rather than “soldier”, whilst the loan combatant maybe the protagonist, the film rarely moves away from the perspective of the children; in one particularly memorable fight scene the soldier battles with the vagrant at the bottom of a stair well, the children stand at staggered locations up the stairs, the fight continues off screen, the camera stays still as the children descend and ascend the stairs to get a better look at the action as it recedes away from them, and then retreat to higher ground when it gets too close for comfort. Shimizu keeps his camera low for most of the film, at eye level with his young cast, keeping the view of innocence which makes the scenes of hardship and death all the more difficult to endure.
Comparisons can easily be drawn between this and works of Charles Dickens particularly Oliver Twist, the old man running the orphans being an obvious reference to the Fagin character in Dicken’s famous second novel. But a more interesting Japanese comparison is Isao Takahata’s Grave of the Fireflies (1988) which could in a sense be a darker prequel to the story of Children of the Beehive, both films share the tragedy of premature death for some of their war orphans, but where Grave of the Fireflies offers a bleak and tragic look at its subject offering little in the way of hope and remaining one of the most notably depressing films ever made, Children of the Beehive takes a more optimistic approach. By the 1980’s it would be important socially to remind viewers of the innocent victims of war (a history that is not remembered is a history doomed to be repeated), in the 1940’s however the emphasis would more appropriately be on healing wounds and moving forward rather than looking backward. Both films aim to raise awareness of the problem, but through different means and for different ends.
Children of the Beehive, like the young ones at its centre, is an orphan. Granted it is not the most technically impressive film, very sloppy optical focus detracts from the occasionally beautiful tracking shots of the children travelling with the soldier across unfamiliar terrain of 1940’s Japan. Some of the child performances are particularly forced and unsurprisingly no further performances have been recorded for many of actors in this film (source IMDb). I caught this film in a fluke screening during a film festival and it is currently unavailable on DVD. Shimizu’s reputation may not be as impressive as his peers (I’d previously never heard of him until seeing this) but Children of the Beehive is as impressive a film as any of the previously mentioned Japanese masters have produced. A Criterion Collection featuring four of Shimizu’s films is available on Region 1 DVD, I’ve not seen any of these films but if the quality of Children of the Beehive is anything to go by they’re well worth seeking out. In the meantime, however I urge you to reap the benefits of cinematic palaeontology, if the print of this film should make it to festival near you - seek it out.