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‘Things Left Behind’

by Kaori Shoji

When the Japanese refer to “the war,” they mean World War II. When they talk about “the bomb,” they mean the nuclear bombs dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki on Aug. 6 and 9, 1945. The event is so familiar, the contours of its tragedy are painfully etched into our collective memory.

On the other hand, the nearly seven decades that have lapsed between then and now have laid the groundwork for a new crop of war stories. “Things Left Behind” is just such a story. A documentary by American filmmaker Linda Hoaglund (“Anpo”), this is a collaborative work with one of Japan’s most notable photographers, Miyako Ishiuchi.

The pair had no prior connection, but Hoaglund was struck by the fragile, poetic nature of Ishiuchi’s 2008 photo collection, boldly titled “Hiroshima,” and shown in four Japanese cities before taking off to Vancouver. Since then, the collection has gained some notoriety and what was once an exhibition has now become a movie.

In the film, Ishiuchi says that Hiroshima and depicting what happened there is her life’s work. At first glance, her photos seem too serene to tell the tale, and certainly “Things Left Behind” hardly feels like a war documentary. Hoaglund worked with renowned cinematographer Yutaka Yamasaki (a longtime collaborator of Hirokazu Koreeda) to train the lens on Ishiuchi’s photos, and then on the people who came to look at them.

The photos are about the surviving remnants of Hiroshima’s victims: a pair of black-rimmed retro spectacles, a polka-dot blouse, a lovely dark dress rendered translucent by time and the bomb that now resembles something off a Comme des Garcons runway.

Some Japanese critics were bothered by the beauty and intimacy of Ishiuchi’s photos, claiming that she was needlessly glamorizing something too sad and horrible for such treatment. In the film, Ishiuchi says her response to that is a desire to “liberate Hiroshima” from the shackles of stereotype. In Ishiuchi’s eyes, “a thing of beauty is a thing of beauty, no matter the circumstances.”

Her photographs and Hoaglund’s storytelling are remote from what we associate with Hiroshima in August 1945, but at the same time, the film seems to close in on unspoken, fundamental truths. Hoaglund had been shooting the film in March 2011 and she says that at the time she had felt numb and cut off from the events unfolding in Fukushima and Tohoku. “I knew then that nothing much had changed, and there will always be an incredible distance between the victims and those who are far from the disaster,” says Hoaglund. Her film isn’t about retelling the Hiroshima tragedy, but seeking a way to connect the victims to the people who came nearly 70 years later to see their remnants and imagine their lives.

Divorced from the hackneyed preconceptions of Aug. 6, the lives of the victims are shown in a different light: how they had dressed themselves with chic elegance in a time of great deprivation, and how they were “secretly leading fashionable lives.” A young Japanese woman who comes to see Ishiuchi’s photos seems to sum it up: “I loved the polka-dot blouse. I’m into polka dots too!”