They say most people have one or more defining childhood incidents — something that sets the course of their adult life and molds their personality. Filmmaker Linda Hoaglund had one, and it was so striking that to this day she can still remember the flush on her face, the tingling of her skin and the sensation that what she was experiencing would stay with her forever.
“I don’t think I’ve ever discussed this at length with my Japanese friends,” says Hoaglund. “But for me, it’s the one paragraph in my life that I keep rewriting.”
At the time, Hoaglund was 10 years old and living in Yamaguchi Prefecture, the daughter of American missionaries working in Japan. There were no international schools in Yamaguchi and Hoaglund had gone with all the other children in her neighborhood to the local elementary school. One day the teacher wrote on the blackboard two words, “Hiroshima” and “America,” and at that moment, every pair of eyes in the room locked on Hoaglund. For a brief moment, she couldn’t breathe.
“I kind of resented the fact that my parents didn’t warn me about Hiroshima,” recalls Hoaglund. “I mean, shouldn’t they have prepared a kid for the inevitable?”
After that, Hoaglund grew up nursing an inner, overwhelming guilt about America’s role in World War II. Her parents returned to the U.S. in the late 1980s but Hoaglund continued to live and work in Japan at least part of the year. Her knowledge of Japan and Japanese gave her a foothold in the film industry and she has worked on English subtitles for the movies of such Japanese cinema giants as Hayao Miyazaki and Junji Sakamoto, before going on to make her own films. The latest, “Things Left Behind,” is a fascinating and affecting documentary that explores the Hiroshima tragedy from a thoughtful new angle.
“I’ve been in an incredibly privileged position,” says Hoaglund, who is convinced that one of the missions of film as an art form is to close the gap between the viewer and the on-screen events and emotions they have never experienced.
“I want my film to be seen by people who think,” she stresses. “I know the fashionable thing to do is to switch off your brain when you’re watching a movie but I think there’s a hunger out there for thinking.”
Hoaglund’s personal mission as “an American” is to “mourn and atone for WWII and the A-bombs. You know, there’s no real equivalent in the U.S. for the Japanese katami — the belief that the spirits of the dead reside in the inanimate objects they leave behind.” (The word also refers to the belongings themselves.)
Hoaglund’s reverence for katami is what led her to film “Things Left Behind,” which was made in collaboration with photographer Miyako Ishiuchi, whose work is a gathering of objects that belonged to Hiroshima victims, silent testimonials to lives erased from the face of the Earth on Aug. 6, 1945.
Hoaglund has her own katami story: When she was working for a Japanese TV network in New York in the early 1990s, her father (then living in Pennsylvania) sent her a military passbook that belonged to a Japanese soldier. The soldier had died in the Philippines and Hoaglund Sr. had somehow come into possession of his passbook.
He asked Hoaglund Jr. to get in touch with the soldier’s widow and to return the passbook to her. It was a long shot, but Hoaglund’s boss tracked down the address and she caught a plane out to Japan, arriving in Akita Prefecture where the soldier’s widow was residing.
“I didn’t know what the protocol for such a thing would be; I mean, I just couldn’t put in an envelope and post it, could I?” remembers Hoaglund. “So I went. I saw her, and I apologized for WWII. I wanted to apologize for the A-bombs, and all the firebombings. You know that song by Leonard Cohen (“The Future”), where one of the lines goes: ‘Give me Christ or give me Hiroshima’? That’s how I felt then. I still do. I can’t believe in a Christianity that can justify dropping two nuclear bombs on a single country. I take Hiroshima because that has always felt more real.”
Hoaglund is well aware that the average fellow American will not share her convictions.
“I think rationalization and justification is the central myth in postwar America. They invented the bomb because they were afraid the Nazis were going to beat them to it. And they dropped it on Japan because otherwise the war would drag on. People really believe that crap. They (the Americans) haven’t moved on in the sense that they are the glorious victors. WWII was the last time they won a war and came out like heroes and they can’t forget that.”
At the same time, Hoaglund knows that film-wise, it will always take great determination and patience to get her point of view across to an audience.
“I have a very specific approach to filmmaking, and sometimes people just don’t understand. They think a documentary should be more objective. But I’m not interested in objectivity. There will always be objective records and a billion facts, true or otherwise. So what?”
According to Hoaglund, “Things Left Behind” is her way of “combatting a myth. I want to confront the myth of Hiroshima with my own subjectivity.” She can look back through time and see her 10-year-old self, the only blonde girl in a classroom full of Japanese, and feel the walls closing in all around her as the teacher writes those two words on the blackboard.
“Objectivity is overrated,” she says. “I’m interested in art that engages with life and death.”
“Things Left Behind” is playing at Iwanami Hall in Jimbocho, Tokyo, from July 20 through Aug. 16. It opens at Haccho-za in Hiroshima on Aug. 3. The last showing each day at Iwanami Hall and all showings at Haccho-za will have English subtitles.