Yusuke NishidaYu Kadoya
Running time: 75 min.
Reviewed by Chris MaGee
This past week marked the 65th anniversary of the bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, two events that ended the Second World War and have in many ways defined Japan as a nation ever since. Both Hiroshima and Nagasaki are now thriving and beautiful cities, but their utter destruction by the first (and to this date only) nuclear attacks in human history have echoed in the psyche of the Japanese people to this day. While many films about the nuclear attacks have been made in Japan over the decades I think that one of the most cinematically evocative films has to be Go Shibata's independent feature "NN-891102", a film we were very fortunate to screen at this year's Shinsaedai Cinema Festival here in Toronto.
Many Japanese film fans will know that name Go Shibata from his 2004 film "Late Bloomer", a stark and experimental film that redefined the serial killer genre. That film centered around a sufferer, a man whose pent up rage at being trapped in his own body manifests itself in a spree of violence. The main character of "NN-891102", Go Shibata's feature film directorial debut, is no less fascinating that the one in "Late Bloomer" and no less disturbed or disturbing. Reiichi Otonashi's life is defined by one single moment. - the detention of the Fat Man atomic bomb on August 9th, 1945 at 11:02AM (thus the title of Shibata's film "NN-891102"). On that morning 5-year-old Reiichi is spared being incinerated in the blast. His father is working on a military project in which reel-to-reel tapes are used to record air raid activity. Just before Nagasaki is flattened by the bomb blast Reiichi is playing with one of his father's monolithic reel-to-reel tape machines in a cave in the hills above the city. He, along with his mother, are spared and the reel-to-reel machine captures the nightmarish sound of the explosion.
In films such as Shohei Imamura's "Black Rain" or Kazuo Kuroki's "Face of Jizo" the psychological impact of surviving a tragedy like the bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki are explored, and explored wonderfully. How does someone make sense of such... words really don't do justice to the horror of what those days must have been like. Still those who survived had to assimilate their experiences in order to simply continue on. In the case of little Reiichi, barely old enough to process the enormity of the event, he is left with the sound of the explosion. With the boundless imagination of a child he attempts to tame the monster that was the atomic blast and recreate the sound he heard on the tape. With microphone in hand he records the sound of water boiling in the pot over the cooking fire, the sound of the front door of his house sliding in its track, the clatter of the temple bell at the local shrine, he even buries the microphone in a pile of gravel and jumps on it with his wooden geta. As a traveling kamishibai performer (who acts as the film's narrator) says, to this boy the sound of the explosion is "like a carnival" and through his attempts at recreating it he confronts the "devil that is plutonium."
Reiichi's wonderous exploration of the sound of the explosion can't transmute it into a harmless racket though. As Shibata follows Reiichi through his teen years and into young adulthood the trauma of the event begins to poison his soul. Gunpowder and dynamite are added to his sound experiments and eventually Reiichi uses them to attempt suicide. Yet again Reiichi survives and ends up discovering another sound to recreate - the sound of a mother's heartbeat as heard in utero by the developing fetus; but despite this new obsession that leads him into a life studying the science of sound August 9th, 1945 never truly leaves him.
In the same way that Reiichi labours over his tape machines trying to recreate and come to terms with the bombing of Nagasaki Shibata and "NN-891102" film composer Noel Nakanishi created an inspired soundscape for the film. At the screening that took place at the Shinsedai Cinema Festival Go Shibata gave special instructions to make sure the volume in the theatre was cranked up, and rightly so. Nuclear explosions aren't meant to whisper, they're meant to be loud enough to separate your soul from your body. That's not to say that experiencing "NN-891102" is painful, in fact it's the opposite. The sounds and the music created by Nakanishi are at times both delicately beautiful and furiously dissonant. I could even say that "NN-891102" is a film that someone could simply listen to and still get the full power of the story (granted they'd have to speak Japanese). This is a huge compliment to the music and sound design, but of course shouldn't be done literally. Not at least the first time you see the film. There are simply too many visual wonders to go along with the audio. Shibata uses the aforementioned Kamishibai, or paper theatre, narrative devices to tell his story, as well as shadow puppets, nods to kaiju monster films, grainy 8mm footage and the running visual theme of Osamu Tezuka's Astro Boy, a character created by Tezuka as a positive symbol of modern technology and used by Shibata as a bittersweet symbol of Reiichi himself.
I am at a loss as to why "NN-891102" hasn't made the transition to DVD like Shibata's "Late Bloomer"(and eventually Shibata's most recent film "Doman Seman" I'm sure). With films just as experimental, oft-times disturbing and just plain ear-splittingly loud as Shinya Tsukaomoto's "Tetsuo the Iron Man" and Sogo Ishii's "Electric Dragon 80,000V" gaining enthusiastic cult audiences in the West I could only see "NN-891102" doing the same. Granted, the serious post-war subject matter might be too much reality for some folks to take. I'd say as the fans of "Iron man" and "Electric Dragon" grow older they'll want a film with a message mixed in with the mayhem. "NN-891102" will be that film.