Pair of films shed new light on hibakusha

Documentaries aim to connect young with nuke survivors

by Natsumi Mizumoto

Kyodo News

While disarmament experts and antinuclear campaigners may have heard about atomic-bomb survivors, a pair of documentaries about hibakusha that aim to connect with the younger generation were recently completed by two young directors from Costa Rica and Japan.

Erika Bagnarello’s “Flashes of Hope” and Takashi Kunimoto’s “Traveling with Hibakusha: Across Generations” take different approaches but both feature a group of more than 100 survivors who cruised around the world in 2008 in a project organized by nongovernmental organization Peace Boat.

A series of events across Japan to screen the two films and talk with the directors began April 14, and Bagnarello’s film, designed for English-speaking audiences, will be shown in New York on May 1, two days before the start of a key U.N. conference to bolster the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty.

In interviews April 12 prior to the events, both 29-year-old directors expressed hope that their roughly hourlong movies will help viewers in Japan and elsewhere hear the hibakusha’s message that the tragedies of the atomic bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki should never be repeated.

“I feel like the message of the hibakusha is very clear: they want to bring hope to the world, they want to tell their story and make sure that it never happens again. So for me, the film is about hope,” Bagnarello said.

Kunimoto, whose film sheds light on a younger generation of hibakusha than the seasoned activists, said, “What is really important is that we think by ourselves how we can respond to the stories of hibakusha. . . . I hope to offer a catalyst for that.”

Both directors admitted, however, that they initially joined the voyage as staff filmmakers to travel around the world free of charge.

A freelance director of corporate videos and commercials for the Costa Rican market, Bagnarello had never made a documentary, while Kunimoto was an amateur video maker working in an unrelated business until he started making Web videos for a radio station after the voyage.

For its 25th anniversary, the Peace Boat arranged its first hibakusha project by inviting 103 survivors on one of its peace-advocacy cruises on a chartered ship that sails three to four times a year. Dubbed the Global Voyage for a Nuclear-Free World, the 129-day trip lasted from September 2008 to January 2009.

“It was a very moving experience. I was very impressed by the fact that I really didn’t know much about this before,” said Bagnarello, who is slated to also visit New York for a screening after events in seven Japanese cities, including Hiroshima, Nagasaki and Osaka.

“I am an educated person in my 20s and should have known more about atomic bombs and their effects . . . so I made it a purpose for me to learn as much as I could on the boat and to make a movie that would resonate with people like myself who didn’t know much about the subject.”

She tried to make her film simple to understand for foreign audiences, and wants it to be viewed as an introductory educational tool, particularly for young people who may become future decision-makers in Latin America, the United States and Europe.

As a main character, her film features Setsuko Thurlow, who migrated to Canada after surviving the Hiroshima bombing, but it also incorporates footage from old TV news, the Japanese animated movie “Barefoot Gen” and scenes from the voyage, as well as experts’ commentaries, to make it “visually interesting,” she said.

“I think if people see the film and they think that they can do something to help abolish nuclear weapons, then that’s my goal,” she said. “Anything that would avoid the spread of nuclear weapons, that’s what I want to get people with my movie to do.”

Thurlow’s call for a world without nuclear weapons, which she made at a session of the U.N. General Assembly’s First Committee on Disarmament and International Security in October 2008, temporarily leaving the ship with three others, was also filmed by Kunimoto.

But Kunimoto said that in taking an approach that focused more on the so-called young hibakusha, who aren’t old enough to remember their exposure to the bombings 65 years ago, he found a clue as to how others can carry on the message of hibakusha who are dying.

As the Peace Boat invited the 103 hibakusha passengers from among the general public, a questionnaire found that more than half the 77 respondents had never before spoken of their experience in public.

“Many of those with no memories were also frankly interested at first in the free around-the-globe trip . . . but when I saw them start to fret and struggle with the fact they don’t have their own stories to tell, I felt I had found neighbors with whom I could talk about this,” he said.

Kunimoto said he now wants to share this idea with more people through his film and possibly involve them.

“Many people in Japan must have a chance to hear the (hibakusha) story, but many, I think, draw the curtain after just hearing it once,” he said.

Kunimoto said he had “an image that hibakusha stories are as steady as a rock” and let his fairly extensive first experience of hearing one in an interview as a sociology student fade, having “no idea what to do with it.”

That hibakusha died just months before Kunimoto tried to revisit him in Nagasaki before the voyage, he added.

The screening of the two films, which are also available as DVD, coincided with the Peace Boat’s departure Friday on its third voyage involving the hibakusha, with 10 others invited since the second cruise last year.

Two of them — Michiko Tsukamoto, 75, from Tokyo and Kunihiko Bonkohara, 69, from Brazil — are slated to visit New York during the voyage for the NPT Review Conference.