Directed by Shimizu Hiroshi
With Shimamura Shunsaku (the repatriated soldier)
A gang of street urchins loiter on the platforms of the Shimonoseki railways station, filching their ways to survive under the commandment of a one-legged lout as the Japanese struggle to get over their defeat at the hands of the Allied forces. They notice a repatriated soldier standing apart from the crowd, unwilling to board a train. Three of the kids tentatively approach him to beg but also to chat. But all the boys (there are no girl) and their boss must beat it as police try to catch them. They manage to regroup later on a road leading to the countryside and meet again the former soldier, who is looking for a job. The kids he helped at the station decide to follow him and to leave their gang, but the young man must eventually look after all the children while their boss is abandoned on a road.
The repatriated soldier has another goal in mind behind earning money: he wants to go back to the educational institution that sheltered and educated him and actually hopes the place, named the Introspection Tower, would welcome the urchins gathered around him. The film becomes the long journey through part of Japan of a strange bunch of companions, poor and boisterous kids people would dismiss as loafers led by a guy too young to be a father and without a serious occupation but keen on giving them comfort and a modicum of education. The kids strive to improve themselves and to survive, though one of them dies of illness and exhaustion, and the repatriated soldier can at the end be proud of them and hands them over the staff of the Introspection Tower.
It first seems, in a surprise move, that those street urchins who do know a few tricks and seem amazingly hard-headed and candid are going to help the soldier to get along but they soon reckon that he can provide them something more than their boss or any adult they have met have offered. As their new friendship stands fast, the boys learn step by step how to appreciate an adult and to play by the rules. The geographical journey turns into a social experience and an opportunity to redeem oneself.
This is filmmaking at street level. A non-professional cast is shot against realistic backgrounds in a fontal manner and with keen attention on the facial expressions. The camera tags along the characters and strives to capture their actions and reactions in a straightforward manner. The screenplay seems barely developed and the language is plain and simple. Yet the shooting is not only about recording in the most accurate way incidents and sentiments; the director favors stunning long shots, with a deep depth of field, that make his characters looking like lost people among huge, beautiful, landscapes or long, clean, roads. But they rather stand as a tight-knit group of companions walking through an old country to find a sense of achievement and to put behind them the horrors of the war in the case of the repatriated soldier or their consequences in the case of the children who are deprived of relatives ready to support them.
The cast is incredibly compelling and touching. The characters ring always true and never look like mawkish inventions; on the contrary, the film excels at capturing how the kids quite spontaneously and plainly take up better habits. The sequence recording how they give up smoking is a basic series of shots following a simple narrative: the soldier is washing clothes on a riverbank, notices cigarette smoke behind him among the kids who are reading, then asks for an explanation only to get none. The kids run away, except the guilty one; the camera has just to train on his face and watches his moves as he increasingly feels queasy and walks up to the soldier, saying nothing but just showing a torn pack of cigs; he then rips it apart and throws the debris into the river. If the soldier’s words may feel a tad moralistic but are rather predictable, the kid’s reactions are riveting and recorded in the starkest way, without any elaborate tricks of mise en scène. The sequence on the discovery by the boys of education is as amazing as the former: the group is then looking for two kids who have skirted their job duties; they are found against the wall of a building; as the group and the camera move closer, it is clear they are rapturously listening to a choir of schoolchildren. That music quickly intrigues all the kids, except one who is shot crouching apart busy with his hands. The soldier approaches him and realizes he is trying to write mathematical operations. Soon, the other kids try to imitate him. Intellectual curiosity and need to learn could not have been more simply, charmingly and rightfully expressed, thanks to nice plot ideas and careful choice of compositions and shots.
This is filmmaking in the most candid, most straightforward and most emotional manner. “Hachi no su no kodomotachi – Children of the Beehive” deals with simple and raw feelings quietly, without reluctance and without guile. The optimism it draws from the mettle of the kids and the happy ending never allows it to caricature behaviors and never lets it forget the harshest reality. The greatest emotional climax is caused by the death of the unhappiest of the kids, a little boy who has lost his mother in a ship accident and who dearly needs a motherly figure. His death, while a friend is carrying him to watch the sea, is incredibly poignant and yet treated with remarkable tact. The bunch also cross devasted cities; the depiction of what people are compelled to do to survive in Tokyo is rigorous and blunt; but the boldest move is their stop in Hiroshima. Japanese and Allied authorities looked unfavorably to any showing and telling on the dire situation of the first city ever bombed with an atomic arm; still this is where one sequence of the movie takes place, again filled with the rawest emotions.
This is filmmaking in the year 1948 – the same time when Vittoria De Sica directed “Ladri de biciclette” and Roberto Rossellini made “Germania anno zero”. The 145th feature of Shimizu Hiroshi shares with them the same need for naturalistic descriptions of nations reeling from grave defeat, the same desire for a camerawork set free from the set conventions (which is not new in Shimizu’s career), the same astonishing cast of kids feeling with a genuine ring, a world away from the Hollywood children (these non-professional actors were the kind of kids French critic André Bazin would admire, dismissively opposing them to the fake attitudes of Shirley Temple) and the same pride in grappling frankly with emotions. It is incredible to watch a renowned Japanese director, who has just left the studios system, make the same artistic statement than the neo-realist cineastes and create his own unforgettable little heroes, though his feature does not probe social and political problems with the same accuracy and worry than his Italian colleagues (and De Sica’s plot can be seen as more elaborate and focused).