THE INNOCENCE OF REBELLING
"I have mentioned that we used to spend hours and hours on the trees, and not for ulterior motives as most boys, who go up only in search of fruit or birds' nests, but for the pleasure of getting over difficult parts of the trunks and forks, reaching as high as we could, and finding a good perch on which to pause and look down at the world below, to call and joke at those passing by."
—Italo Calvino, The Baron in the Trees (1957)
When I was ten years of age, a girl that I liked gave me a handwritten checklist of things she wanted us to do together. One of them read: Spend the whole night sitting on the branch of a tree and watching the moon together. Unfortunately, heights have never been my strong suit and thus I never watched the moon with her. Recently, while watching Shimizu Hiroshi’s tender tales of innocence and resilience, Children of the Wind (1937) and Four Seasons of Children (1939), I was reminded not only of that traumatic incident (you can’t imagine what I went through), but also of the role that trees played in my childhood. There was a tree my friends and I had to climb up in order to reach the roof of a garage whenever we lost our ball up there. Another one served as scaffolding for a swing. Another we shook constantly to see earthworms appear from under it. There was one to steal apples from and one we built a hidden treehouse in, nestled between its branches.
The children in Shimizu’s films pursue similar activities. They hide in the treetops, make use of the height of a fruit tree as a lookout post, and shake another tree’s branches to make sweet acorns fall from it in autumn. As the two films, which share the same characters and motifs, confront the young boys (only one girl appears in both films) with the darker side of life, they find solace and a sort of liberation from the weight of the world among the branches and leaves. Up in the trees children can escape the gaze of their parents. Unbothered, they can watch the moon, smoke their first cigarettes and plot the great escape of all children into the clouds. Despite the children’s worry, the parents in Shimizu’s films are quite relaxed. Even if they have to run from time to time because a child gets hurt or lost, there is a calmness about them that’s very nice to see, especially when compared to the worried parents of our age who might let their offspring climb a tree only if they were equipped with a safety rope and helmet.
In the 1930s Shochiku Studio assigned Shimizu to direct these two adaptations of novellas written by Jōji Tsubota: First Children of the Wind and then, after the story and the film proved successful, Four Seasons of Children. The release of these films came right into what scholars refer to as the children boom in Japanese cinema. Films like A Pebble by the Wayside (Tomotaka Tasaka, 1938) and Composition Class (Yamamoto Kajiro, 1938) were popular with critics and audiences. In this genre, referred to as jidô eiga, the world often appears as seen through the eyes of children. This doesn’t necessarily mean that their audience is supposed to be young, though. Touching scenes of innocence might induce a certain melancholy, just like the ones by Shimizu that made me recall those trees of my childhood.
Shimizu made films about the things we forgot along the way. Whenever one of the boys discovers something to climb (bridge railing, stone walls, cows), he will try it. One can’t help but wonder when this curiosity for heights disappears in life. Adults only climb trees in order to cut branches, harvest fruits, or save cats (which is rarely necessary). Maybe curiosity comes from being smaller than other people. Shimizu repeatedly shows things hanging a tad higher than the arms of the boys can reach. Laundry, masks, fruits, or a bag of money: They all hang in the trees. The act of reaching for what is just beyond one’s grasp has rarely been filmed as persistently and beautifully as in these films. He films the resilience of those who want to climb the world. Trees are a bit like adults but they (too) can be conquered.
There is a lot to consider when it comes to climbing trees. In Children of the Wind Shimizu films young Sampei who attempts to climb the tree where his older brother is on the lookout. He embraces the whole trunk and tries as hard as he can but ultimately fails. Later, he manages the feat: He sits on the branches in order to see his home, which he was sent away from after his father had to go to prison. Needless to say, this idea of a change of perspective relates to cinema. It’s a visual pendant to the differing ways adults and children look at the world and thus a metaphor for the boy’s desire to see what his parents see, to see what he is not supposed to see. In a world children can’t understand, they long to figure out its secrets. Like cinema, trees can be a very efficient medium to see more.
A climbed tree is a form of rebelling against the order of things; a tree is a ladder leading to the sky, and it belongs to everybody. When a company takes over the farm of Sampei’s grandfather in Four Seasons of Children, the old man tells the children they can’t play there any longer. They have to play somewhere else: The rivers and trees belong to everybody, he says. As lovely as that sounds, not everyone living in the village where I grew up shared that point of view. Our tree houses were sabotaged, branches were cut in order to stop us from climbing and to this day I don’t know why. Allegedly, we were too loud up in the trees, but I assume it also had to do with a frustration of having forgotten the smell of bark under one’s fingernails or the pleasure of being able to spit on the head of a passerby. Although such impertinent activity is not what people expect of well-raised children, it’s exactly in this act of rebellion that innocence appears. Innocence as an act that doesn’t consider consequences; innocence as a playful exchange with what surrounds us; innocence as a bird’s nest protected from the inevitably of growing up.
In Four Seasons of Children young Kin-chan falls from an oak tree after trying to climb higher and higher. He is hurt but not too badly. It’s in falling that he will grow and see more. It’s the falling that will make him look differently at the tree. It’s from falling that he will have to learn to get back up and climb again.
Full Bloom is a series, written by Patrick Holzapfel and illustrated by Ivana Miloš, that reconsiders plants in cinema. Directors have given certain flowers, trees, or herbs special attention for many different reasons. It’s time to give them the credit they deserve and highlight their contributions to cinema, in full bloom.