Antiwar director, 98, still carries message

by Sayo Sasaki

Kyodo News

While it’s not uncommon for film directors to work into their senior years, not many have managed to maintain the will and physical strength to continue to age 98.

But Kaneto Shindo is driven by his strong opposition to war and nuclear weapons, and the award-winning director and scriptwriter is still shooting films despite now having to use a wheelchair.

Nearly 60 years after making “Genbaku no Ko” (“Children of the Atomic Bomb”) in 1952 about his native Hiroshima, the first independent film produced by his production company, Shindo is now making a movie about the war and the leadup to the bombing in what he calls his “last piece of work.”

“I am a filmmaker, and a filmmaker must continue to make films on the atomic bombings, forever,” Shindo said in a recent interview in Tokyo after finishing shooting “Ichimai no Hagaki” (“A Postcard”), his 49th film, scheduled to be released later this year.

Shindo said he has seen both the beauty of the city and its devastation by the atomic bombing on Aug. 6. 1945, and was driven by the strong urge to depict the incident when he made his first A-bomb film.

“The beautiful city I knew in childhood was turned into rubble just by a single bomb. . . . It killed tens of thousands of people instantly, unlike other bombs that can only kill a maximum of a hundred at a time,” Shindo said. “That is a crime against humanity.”

His crew started filming in the city seven years after the bombing, when it was still mostly in ruins, despite having a budget of just ¥3 million at a time when filmmaking usually cost tens of millions of yen.

The black-and-white film shows a young woman visiting children she had taught as a kindergarten teacher after the blast, while depicting the suffering caused by the bombing through the daily lives and conversations of the characters.

One scene depicts the moment of the blast, with a clock ticking as a mother breast-feeds her baby, children playing, sunflowers standing high against the sky and people doing their morning chores. Then there’s a flash of white light when the bomb detonates.

Shindo himself did not experience the Hiroshima bombing as he had been drafted and was serving elsewhere at the time, but repeatedly revised his script through daily meetings with survivors, making sure he did not exaggerate the facts about the bombing and the damage it left.

As a result, the piece came to hold a power and sincerity that has led some survivors to call it the only film on the subject they can related to.

Shindo’s sincere attitude toward the issue and deep sympathy captured the hearts of many of the survivors and inspired them — even those with severe burns to their face and body — to volunteer to appear in the film.

Through repeated exchanges with them, Shindo said he came to think that although they are called “survivors” their lives were actually ruined to a point that it is equivalent to being killed, a sense that reinforced his opposition to nuclear weapons.

Although the topics of his movies and scripts have dealt with a range of social issues, and he has worked on comedy and documentaries as well, his films on war and nuclear weapons are, by far, the centerpiece of a career decorated with a number of international awards, with “Genbaku no Ko” the first to be recognized.

Shindo’s films reflect his core belief that the life of ordinary people should be cherished and that such destructive forces as war that deprive people of their ordinary lives should be strongly protested.

“I am looking at the war from the eyes of average people,” Shindo said, adding his first Hiroshima film, as well as the latest one, takes such a stand.

“Ichimai no Hagaki” deals with a postcard a soldier headed to the front receives from his wife in which she writes, “There is a festival today, but without you there is no attraction.” The film is based on Shindo’s experience of becoming one of only six people to survive from his 100-man unit during the war.

One of his comrades died after receiving such a postcard, which Shindo believes was telling the man he was “the most precious thing” in the world to his wife.

“It is war that rips away the most precious thing from people” and eventually takes away everything, Shindo said. “The death of a soldier would destroy his family in the end. And that’s the very reason I am against war.”