Sunday, August 21, 2011
Ten Films about Hiroshima and Nagasaki
by Chris MaGee
Between August 6th and August 9th, 1945 Japan was the site for a titanic shift in human history. After nearly four years of conflict between the United States and Japan the U.S. military would end the Second World War with two horrific attacks. Not only were the bombings of Hiroshima on August 6th and Nagasaki on August 9th used as examples of gross military power against the Japanese Empire, but they were also used as Frankensteinian experiments in atomic weaponry. A quarter of a million people were killed in the bombings of both cities, not all of them instantly. Japanese and U.S. physicians dealt with the mysterious plague of radiation sickness on citizens of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, but for years after the attacks images and stories of what occurred that August would be classified as top secret by General MacArthur's occupying forces. Japan needed to deal with the historical, physical, and psychological effects of the bombings though, and they did so (and continue to do so) through motion pictures. To honour the 66th anniversary of the bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki this month the J-Film Pow-Wow would like to present ten films that explore the events and impact of these four fateful days. We aren't categorizing these as "Our Top Ten" or "Our Favorite". This month's list is different. Instead we suggest you seek out any or all of these films as a means to educate so that we never forget, and hopefully never repeat these terrible actions.
10. Women in the Mirror (Yoshishige Yoshida, 2002)
Yoshishige "Kiju" Yoshida was one of the filmmakers who defined the Japanese New Wave in the late 1960's and early 1970's with such films as "Eros Plus Massacre" and "The Affair". Many of these films would feature Yoshida's wife, actress Mariko Okada. Unlike many of the New Wave directors who have either passed away or sidelined by illness Yoshida is still with us, and in 2002 he again cast his wife in a film that would deal with the psychological scars of the bombing of Hiroshima. Okada stars as Ai Kawase, a woman whose life is haunted by the bombing of Hiroshima. Her late husband, a physician, treated soldiers affected by radiation sickness, and her prodigal daughter returns home having been missing for years. Now Kawase must deal with a documentary filmmaker who wants to discuss her husband's time in Hiroshima and her daughter's amnesia; her memory wiped except for the image of the bombed city. Yoshida is a meditation on the trauma of the bombing of Hiroshima which repeatedly uses imagery of broken mirrors to symbolize the fractured psyche of its lead characters and Japan as a nation.
9. The Bells of Nagasaki (Hideo Oba, 1950)
Dr. Takashi Nagai is one of two people on our list whose lives were directly affected by the bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. Born in Nagasaki in 1908 Nagai graduated from the Nagasaki Medical College in 1932 and began a career as a radiologist. His own spiritual curiosity and a stint in the Imperial Army saw Nagai being baptized as a Roman Catholic in 1934, and during WW2 he would bring both his medical expertise and deep faith to treating wounded Japanese soldiers. Due to his radiological research Nagai would be diagnosed with leukemia in June of 1945, but he would soon find himself at the center of the beginning of the atomic age. Nagai was in Nagasaki on August 9th. He was seriously injured and lost his wife Midori in the blast, but the month after the attack he and his two children built a small hut close to the hypocenter of the blast. It was here that he spent the remainder of his life in prayer and writing a number of books. The most famous of these was his 1949 memoir "The bells of Nagasaki". A year after its publication Shochiku and director Hideo Oda released a screen adaptation of Nagai's book written by Kaneto Shindo. Actor Masao Wakahara would star as Dr. Nagai and Yumeji Tsukioka would portray his wife Midori. Oda's film, the first film to deal with the atomic bombings, was threatened with censorship by the occupying U.S. forces.
8. Hiroshima Nagasaki Download (Shinpei Takeda, 2009)
The hibakusha, or "explosion-affected people", is the name used by the Japanese for the survivors of the bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. Even now, nearly seven decades after the attacks, the Japanese census recognizes nearly 220,000 hibakusha. These men and women receive special government subsidies and hold a unique position in Japanese society -- living reminders of the horrors of the war and the (to date) only nuclear attack in modern history. Despite individuals like manga artist Keiji Nakazawa (who will appear later in this list) and peace activist Koko Kondo the majority of hibakusha have remained quiet about their experiences in Hiroshima and Nagasaki, maybe due to the discrimination and misunderstanding that they suffered in the years following the war. Filmmaker Shinpei Takeda challenged this wall of silence surrounding a special group of hibakusha in his 2009 documentary "Hiroshima Nagasaki Download". Takeda travels from Vancouver, Bristish Columbia down the U.S. west coast speaking to 18 hibakusha who in the years since August 1945 have immigrated to North America. Stories of starting lives anew in a country which once categorized Japanese as "the enemy" contrast with the ever present spectre of the atomic bombings. "Hiroshima Nagasaki Download" has met with enthusiastic audiences worldwide, but its frank discussions with hibakusha has dogged the film with controversy in Japan.
7. Rhapsody in August (Akira Kurosawa, 1991)
The lives of the hibakusha forms the center of the 1991 film "Rhapsody in August". Although legendary director Akira Kurosawa dealt with the atomic attacks of 1945 in such films as "I Live in Fear" and (in part) "Dreams" its with his story of three generations of a family affected by the bombing of Nagaski that his feelings on the subject reach their pinnacle. Sachiko Murase stars as Kane, the matriarch of two generations of Japanese and Japanese-Americans. One summer Kane's children fly to Hawaii to visit a man claiming to be Kane's long lost brother. They in turn send their children to visit their grandmother in Kyushu. Kurosawa shows a touch of the work of fellow film master Yasujiro Ozu with the grandchildren chafing against the boring ways of Kane. During one part of the film the kids get out from under their grandmother and head to Nagasaki where their grandfather, and Kane's husband, lost his life in the bombing. More tender family scenes follow once all three generations, including an American cousin played by Richard Gere, reunite at Kane's home, but Kurosawa makes it clear that the shadow of Nagasaki still casts its shadow over these people... and all Japanese.
6. NN-891102 (Go Shibata, 1999)
Indie filmmaker Go Shibata is known for his brash and sometimes disturbing visions like those in 2004's "Late Bloomer" and 2009's "Doman Seman", but for his directorial debut in 1999 Shibata cut his cinematic teeth on the daunting subject of the bombing of Hiroshima. More specifically "NN-891102" examines how music and art can act as a way for someone to process a traumatic event. The film tells the story of Reiichi Otonashi who in 1945 is a young boy, the son of a Japanese military researcher working on sound experiments in a mountain cave above the city of Nagasaki. When the United States drops the bomb on the city Otonashi's father has his recording devices running and what they pick up becomes the driving obsession of the rest of Otonashi 's life. His mission now is to recreate the sound of the explosion captured on a reel of tape marked NN-891102 (Nagasaki, August 9th, 11:02AM -- the time of bomb detonation). From early experiments recording water boiling and wooden geta on rough gravel to attempts to record his own suicide by blowing himself up with dynamite, Otonashi veers from being objective and clinical to nearly losing himself in the madness that brought about the destruction of Nagasaki in the first place. Shibata uses ambient sound and music to create an abstract journey into the mind of his protagonist. We follow along on this journey and into a film unlike any made on the bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki.
5. Godzilla (Ishiro Honda, 1954)
Godzilla, the 80-metre tall, fire breathing lizard who roared up from the bottom of the Pacific to christen a seemingly endless stream of kaiju monster movies might seem like an anomaly on a list of sobering films about Hiroshima and Nagasaki; but a closer look at the life of Ishiro Honda, the creator of Godzilla and the director of 7 of the 29 films in the series, reveals the reasons why 1954's "Gojira" appears on this list. Starting in 1936 Honda did three tours of duty in the Japanese Imperial Army, including a tour through Japanese occupied Manchuria. Honda saw more than enough of war's inhumanity by 1945, but once Japan had surrendered and Imperial soldiers saw themselves being repatriated back home Honda would see something that few could forget. On his way back to Tokyo Honda passed through Hiroshima. The devastation was almost beyond comprehension. Once Honda was settled back into civilian life and work at Toho Studios he began to conceive of a project that was originally going to be Japan's answer to RKO Radio Pictures' monster movie "King Kong". Over time though "Gojira", as the film would be called, became more than just a monster movie. Soon Hinda and screenwriter Takeo Murata began consciously incorporating elements of the recently unleashed atomic energy into the attributes of their giant lizard. The climactic sequence where Godzilla attacks Tokyo contained shots that looked as if they had been lifted from news reel footage of the bombing of Hiroshima. Honda would eventually admit that his 1954 film was meant to inspire the end of nuclear weaponry and technology. Instead it inspired a whole new genre of motion picture entertainment.
4. Black Rain (Shohei Imamura, 1989)
The horrific destructive power unleashed by the atomic bombs dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki shocked the world, but it was the horrors of radiation sickness that would breed paranoia and fear in the Japanese for years to come. While Japanese who had survived the firebombings of cities like Tokyo and Osaka could go on with their lives enjoying perfect health the survivors of the bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki could suddenly exhibit symptoms including bleeding, hair loss, fatigue, fever and vomiting, and in many cases death. And what was even more mysterious was that this could occur years after the bombings took place. Very few doctors, scientists or civilians understood the effects of radiation sickness in the late 1940's and early 1950's, and it was this misunderstanding that bred the aforementioned prejudice against the survivors of the atomic attacks. In 1989 director Shohei Imamura combined the plight of the hibakusha with a plot that would not have looked out of place in an Ozu film to create "Black Rain". The Shizuma family is looking to find a husband for their daughter Yasuko (Yoshiko Tanaka), but they are having a very hard time of it. The family were in the hills outside of Hiroshima at the time of the "pika-don", or "flash-boom" as the Japanese called the explosion, so they feel that Yasuko should be healthy and her status as a hibakusha should not stand in the way of her being married. They don't take into account the family's march through the destroyed city (depicted graphically by Imamura in the film) and Yasuko's exposure to the inky "black rain" heavy with radioactive fallout. The characters in "Black Rain" do their best to go on with their lives and loves, but somewhere underneath it all is the terror that the bomb is still seething through their veins... and sadly, in many cases it is.
3. The Face of Jizo (Kazuo Kuroki, 2004)
"The Face of Jizo" is the best known stage drama dedicated to the bombing of Hiroshima. Written by playwright Hisashi Inoue in 1994 it is a deceptively simple story of a father and daughter living in the slowly reassembling city of Hiroshima. The two bicker and chat like any family, but the twist if "The Face of Jizo" is that fact that the daughter, Mitsue, is actually living alone. Her father, Takezo, still inhabits their meager home, but he is a ghost. He was one of the many who lost their lives in the bombing. Even from beyond the grave Takezo lectures his daughter on how she should go on with her life, but it's Mitsue's survivor's guilt that stops her from moving on. Even when a handsome young man named Kinoshita comes to the library where Mitsue works she can't bring herself to give into her feelings for him, especially given that he has come to Hiroshima to research the bombing. "The Face of Jizo" has been translated into English, Italian and German and has been staged worldwide to great acclaim. In 2004 director Kazuo Kuroki adapted Inoue's play to the screen, casting Rie Miyazawa as Mitsue, the late Yoshio Harada as Takezo and Tadanobu Asano as Kinoshita. Kuroki's film went on to sweep that year's Japanese film awards, with accolades showered on Miyazawa and Harada's performances... and rightly so. The onscreen chemistry between the two is the key to making Kuroki's "The Face of Jizo" one of the most human and accessible cinematic takes on the horrific subject matter of Hiroshima and Nagasaki.
2. Barefoot Gen (Masaki Mori, 1983)
Keiji Nakazawa was six-years-old when his hometown of Hiroshima was bombed. His family members who were in the city that August morning all died (his mother and baby sister would succumb to radiation poisoning a few days later), and all that would save the young Nakazawa was that he bent down behind a concrete wall at the very moment of the flash. Obviously this day has continued to haunt Nakazawa up to the present day, but the way that he has dealt with his experiences on August 6th, 1945 and the months and years since was to write about them in the pages of his manga. From the beginning of his career as a manga artist in 1961 to his retirement in 2009 Nakazawa would commit his memories of growing up before, during and after the bombing of Hiroshima to the pages of several manga, the best known being the 10-volume "Barefoot Gen". The series revolves around the semi-autobiographical character of Gen Nakaoka, who like Nakazawa survives the bombing of Hiroshima. The manga would gain unrivaled popularity in Japan, being adapted into animated TV series and three live-action films, but for our list we focus on the 1983 animated film directed by Masaki Mori. In the film Gen is voiced by Hiroshima-born voice actor Issei Miyazaki, and although the action occasionally veers a little too close to being a "cartoon" it is the brutal honesty and terrifying depiction of the immediate aftermath of the bombing that sets elevates "Barefoot Gen" to being on of the most valuable visual resources on the attack on Hiroshima.
1. Children of Hiroshima (Kaneto Shindo, 1952)
Veteran screenwriter and director Kaneto Shindo was born in Hiroshima in 1912. Throughout his over 60-year career he would return to the city of his birth again and again, either physically (he would shoot his best known film "Onibaba" in a rural area outside Hiroshima) or ideologically (Shindo would make a film on the Lucky Dragon No. 5 Incident in 1958). The epitome of his homages to his home city has to be his 1952 film "Children of Hiroshima" though. Like so many of Shindo's films "Children of Hiroshima" stars his late wife Nobuko Otowa as Takako Ishikawa, a school teacher from Hiroshima who, after years teaching elsewhere and years after the bombing, returns to the city of her birth. What makes "Children of Hiroshima" so remarkable is the fact that with the U.S. Occupation ending in '52 Shindo was free to return home and shoot his film about Hiroshima at the very site of the tragedy. Scenes in which Takako encounters her old neighbour, now reduced to being a half-blind beggar, are made all the more poignant due to the fact that they are shot near the remains of the Aioi Bridge, ground zero for the detonation of the bomb. A child runs to see his mother who is at work with other women constructing the Hiroshima Peace Memorial Museum. Takako stands by the ruins of the Hiroshima Prefectural Industrial Promotion Hall (now known as the Atomic Bomb Dome), the spot where tourists from around the globe now have their pictures taken. To think that only seven years before Shindo's hometown had been leveled by an atomic bomb and now we can watch the reconstruction of the city in "Children of Hiroshima" makes it a historical piece of cinema. It is also a monument to the endurance and spirit of the people of Hiroshima and Japan.