Hiroshi Shimizu is well known as one of the best directors of children in the history of Japanese cinema, equalled only by the contemporary director Hirokazu Koreeda. The Shiinomi School (しいのみ学園, Shiinomi Gakuen) is one of the primary examples of his genius as it takes on the controversial themes of the place of the disabled in society and especially how children and their parents can come to terms with the many difficulties they now face.
The Yamamotos are a happy family with two sons. However, their elation at the birth of their first child soon turned to tragedy as the boy became seriously ill with polio. Times being what they were, the treatment is not completely effective and although their son thankfully survived, he did so with a lamed leg. Now an older child, Yudo walks with a crutch and is constantly left out or bullied by his fellow children. After their second son, Teruhiko, also contracts the disease and is left even more seriously affected than his brother, the Yamamotos decide to open a school for survivors of polio where they can play together, learning how to live with the effects of the disease, free of the stigma which plagues them in their everyday lives.
Yudo just wants to play baseball and the other kids tell him he can if he brings a catcher’s mitt of his own but when he does they take it away from him and use it themselves while he sits and sadly watches them play. When his dad arrives and tries to tell them off, the kids form a mob and all leave together, fake limping as they go. Children are monsters, and often far less forgiving of difference than their adult counterparts (though it has to be said that the parents of other children are hardly blameless here). It’s not surprising that Mr. Yamamoto would want to protect his son by taking him out of this harsh environment where he’s constantly reminded of his disability and a target for the other kids’ cruel games.
The Shiinomi School may be at odds with modern thinking, but its heart is definitely in the right place. The Yamamotos are operating from a humanist perspective – they want to provide a place which helps the children to grow up strong and independent, fully able to cope with their various disabilities, where they can also escape the extreme prejudice which infects society in general. This prejudice is best brought out not by Yudo’s treatment by the other boys, but by the sad case of Tetsuo whose father had so little idea what to do with him that he used to tie him to a pole. Tetsuo’s dad has since remarried and his new wife has no intention of looking after a disabled child so they’ve brought him to Shiinomi with the intention of abandoning him there. Mr. Yamamoto is shocked and originally refuses to take the boy in protest at the idea of a father who wouldn’t want to try and do everything for his son, but eventually reconsiders when he thinks about what the boy is going back to.
Unintentionally segregating the children has some benefits in the short term but there are those who may feel that it sends a message that the problem is with the children and not with the society which rejects them. Perhaps by giving these children a happy childhood and protecting them from the cruelty of others it’s also leaving them unprepared to deal with that same cruelty once they come of age. In any case Shimizu shoots with his trademark humanity, valiantly showing the children singing loudly and learning to enjoy their lives despite their many hardships. From tiny acorns mighty oaks do grow, the Yamamotos want nothing more than to raise these children in love and acceptance and, if the final scene of the children walking down the lane alone with a song on their lips is anything to go by, you could say their efforts have been richly rewarded.