"The Adventures of Hutch the Honeybee" (1970) is a Japanese animated TV series about a lonely, orphaned bee named Hutch who travels on ground level through the forest, having encounters with other insect species and trying to find someone who'll welcome him into their community. Invariably, he has to intervene to assist other insect outcasts. In one episode, he sets out to reunite a mother with the child she abandoned. It's all quite beautifully detailed and dramatically depicted via hand-drawn 2-D cell animation. I watched four episodes of this on two high-quality VHS tapes purchased from a used video bin at a Japanese video store in Manhattan. The episodes were in Japanese with no subtitles, although I found the stories generally easy to follow. The series has a rich musical score and two of the episodes feature insect musical performers.
For a series aimed at children, this has a surprising amount of stark violence and brutality, as well as occasional tragedy and a general melancholic feeling. It's an insect-eat-insect world out there, with some insect species serving as rapacious antagonists and assorted non-insect species on their worst behavior, including a murderous hawk in one episode and a bullying gecko in another. Of the four episodes I watched, only one had anything close to a straight-up happy ending. I would argue that these elements made this series far more memorable to young viewers in Japan than much softer, light-hearted fare and helped dramatize the general morals of the series. The compassion for others that we learn and the respect for elders, parents, and community are all hard-earned here and not tossed off as an afterthought. And besides, Hutch's unwavering faith and optimism, even when faced with great odds, make him quite an admirable character.
The first of the four episodes I saw has an epic structure, involving a journey from the ruins of one bee colony to a sister colony in an idyllic flower-filled meadow on the other side of a sprawling, perilous forest. Honey, a female worker bee, is the only survivor of an attack by hungry winged insects (either wasps or hornets) and has to protect the queen bee's one surviving egg and get it to the other colony. Hutch volunteers to help her, and is soon joined by another, bigger bee. They encounter various obstacles including a trio of vicious beetles and their unlikely ally, a non-speaking hawk who attacks the bee party in a suspenseful climax. (There is quite a bit of wildly uncharacteristic animal behavior in this show.)
The second episode has to do with an insect (presumably a grasshopper) who plays a home-made banjo and accompanies the strumming with music made by his own wings. The banjo-player angers a grasshopper orchestra conductor when the music he makes attracts female fans from the orchestra's audience. A gecko harasses Hutch and the banjo-player and behaves quite cruelly, before ultimately executing a lethal attack on a grasshopper assembly, leaving only the outcast banjo-player and Hutch in a position to fight back.
The third episode has to do with an elderly grasshopper violin player, whose gentle, lyrical melody is stolen by another grasshopper orchestra conductor until the conductor's daughter, also a musician, attempts to set things right. Hutch treats the violin player with great reverence. The fourth episode has to do with an insect mother (of indeterminate species) who has never held her child and has watched from afar as the girl grows up under the care of a foster mother in an insect village. Hutch gets wind of all this and tries to find a way to unite the mother and child. The mother's reticence stems from the fact that she was disfigured as the result of a pesticide spray attack, the only time we see evidence of humans in these episodes. (The mother's shame echoes the stigma of the "hibakusha," radiation-scarred Hiroshima survivors who were treated as outcasts.)
The one notable lack of consistency I noticed from one episode to the next was the way the insect musical instruments were designed. In the episode with the banjo-player, the instruments are all fashioned from materials found in plants and flowers. In the one with the old violin player, they all play "real" instruments. The old man even refers to his violin as a "Stradivarius" by name. Interestingly, English words are sprinkled throughout the Japanese dialogue. In the music episodes, we hear "violin," "gee-tar," "melody" and "romantic." Also, in the first episode, when one of the bees deftly intercepts a falling egg, he declares, "Nice catch!" There's quite a bit of additional anthropomorphism involved, including the elaborate insect orchestras we see and the insect-style playground, where we see insect children ride on slide-shaped leaf formations and fall and cry like human children. (Of course, it wasn't the first or last time filmmakers treated the insect world this way. See MR. HOPPITY GOES TO TOWN, 1941, and ANTZ and A BUG'S LIFE, both 1998.)
I somehow doubt this 41-year-old series will ever get any kind of revival in the U.S., so I'm happy to have found these VHS tapes. According to the Anime News Network, this series was once dubbed into English, but I don't know when or where it ever played. CDJapan does not offer the original for sale, but does list a 2010 theatrical movie remake.
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