Running time: 104 min.
Reviewed by Nicholas Vroman
A few weeks ago J-Film Pow-Wow, commemorating the August 6 atom bombing of Hiroshima, published a “10 Best films about Hiroshima” list. I managed to see Hideo Sekigawa’s 1953 “Hiroshima” a little past the deadline to make the list. By any measure, this powerful recreation of the events of that tragic time and the window it opens into the issues and questions that the Japanese were discussing in the aftermath of such horror, certainly makes this a must-see, if not an eleventh film to merit addition to the list.
Producer Takeo Ito, found himself effectively blacklisting himself from Toho studios because of his creating and organizing for the Japanese Movie Theater Union. Despite (or perhaps because of) his strong antiwar film, “War and Peace” (Senso to Heiwa -1947), without studio help, he managed to corral an incredible array of cinema talents – along with about eight thousand extras – and get the “Hiroshima: made. Director Hideo Sekigawa had built a solid rep for his leftist cinema - even collaborating with Kurosawa on Those Who Made Tomorrow* - by the time he made Hiroshima. His commitment to pacifism, leavened with a healthy dose of anti-Americanism would see him making films into the 1970s, but Hiroshima remains his masterpiece. Young actors, some of whom would become a who’s who of Japanese postwar cinema donated their talents. Eiji Okada, ten years away from “Hiroshima Mon Amor,” Isuzu Yamada, who would become a Kurosawa stalwart, making cinematic history as the Lady Macbeth character in “Throne of Blood," Yumeji Tsukioka and a host of lesser known types and faces who would populate postwar Japanese screens get a chance to shine here. Composer Akira Ifukube’s brooding score reveals more depth and passion than by his more famous theme for a mess of Godzilla movies, including the original. Cinematographer Yoshio Miyajim already shows his already amazing eye in Hiroshima, long before his more famous contributions to Kobayashi’s masterpieces “Harakiri” and “Kwaidan.” By teaming up with the Japan Teacher’s Union, Ito bypassed the usual theatrical distribution routes, screening the film in schools and community centers – a fairly audacious move.
In 1953, when the film was released, Japan was beginning to heal and rebuild, but the legacy of the tragedy and mindset of the postwar generation of young folk then coming of age kept the issues alive with a new urgency that demanded concerned filmmakers to explore what the end of World War II had wrought.
“Hiroshima” opens with amorphous shots of clouds slowly forming themselves into something that looks like a mushroom cloud. A slow commanding requiem unfolds, the legato notes never quite seeming to resolve. A voice over recites the history of the atom bomb attack. Fade to a classroom, a few years after that fateful day. Kitagawa sensei [Eiji Okada] hovers at the front of a classroom filled with very serious students listening to the radio Cut to young Michiko (Reiko Matsuyama) breaking down and imploring Kitagawa to turn it off. She covers her ears. By the time he comes to comfort her. There are drops of blood on her textbook. She’s suffering from radiation sickness.
Kitagawa brings the discussion of Hiroshima and it’s survivors to the class, a good third of whom were witness to the tragedy and continue to suffer from it. We’re introduced to Hideo Endo (Tsukida Masaya), a dropout making dough waiting in a high-tone western style club, playing pachinko all day. The poles of the effects of Hiroshima upon a generation are quickly sketched. The continuing sickness of radiation poisoning, the alienation of innocents growing up in a post-nuclear holocaust world, the shame of a nation – shown through student’s discussion of pacifist philosopher, Masaaki Shinohara’s 1952 book, “Letters from East and West German Youth”- are presented, somewhat didactically, but are tempered with young Michiko succumbing to her illness and Hideo taking up the reigns as the future of the nation.
From this introduction to the issues, a half-hour in, the film takes off into a hallucinogenic, heroic realist, symbolist evocation of the nightmare of the bombing of Hiroshima. In a tour-de-force of production design, editing, storytelling and grandiose filmmaking, Sekigawa covers the moment of the bombing into the following days with, a heartfelt humanizing of the tragedy.
The setup is classic - Hiroshima as a bit of a backwater, citizen militias doing their bits for the war effort, kids being propagandized, the air raid scares, the older men in uniform, hanging out. When the bomb hits, it’s unexpected. Just the sound of airplanes. People look from their work and then… a couple of flashes on the dark screen, a few frames of white, a couple more flashes and fade to black, all in silence. As Ikufube’s requiem starts the image fades back in with a slow pan over wreckage and moaning bodies. A horrific tapestry of compelling images and performances detail individual stories follows - Hideo’s father Yukio (Yoshi Kato in an agonizing performance full of fear, madness and desperation) witnessing his wife’s death and searching for his lost children; Komehara sensei (Yumeiji Tsukioka) leading a group of girls to the river, where they drift away in a scene of magical realist beauty; Oba Minu (Isuzu Yamada), a mother who gathers her kids, one who dies in her arms, keeps her face in a mask of dazed horror until the moment she dies. These stories build depth as devastating images and details pile up. Evocations of Eisenstein, symbolist paintings and the apocalypse give a completely compelling representation of the tragedy. What’s more, between the low-budget costuming (lots of shredded clothes), faces simply covered with soot or paint, fright wigs of hair, faces stuck in shocked grimaces and the slow zombie-like plodding of the tortured masses, there’s a sort of prot-butoh at work. Its affect is devastating.
The story works its way back to the present (1953). We follow Hideo’s story, losing his sister and becoming homeless. A brilliant scene shows a kid teaching the other how to say “hungry” which one can only say as “angry” He finally comes around, getting a proper job in a factory and looking toward a brighter future.
The final scenes show documentary footage of a massive peace demonstration. The characters of the film are slowly superimposed. They rise from the dead and march toward the camera with sad heroism and conviction. More and more, their numbers build as the music swells – a fitting image of remembrance and redemption for one of the greatest tragedies of history.
* Kurosawa's name was taken off the film. He repudiated it saying, "It was really made by the labor union and is an excellent example of why a committee-made film is no good."
Read more by Nicholas Vroman at his blog