A new generation’s search for ground zero

Filmmakers capture hibakusha stories on emotional journey along west coast of North America


An estimated 140,000 were killed in the atomic bombing of Hiroshima, another 70,000 in Nagasaki, with thousands more succumbing to radiation-related illnesses in the months and years that followed. Shocking statistics like these are supposedly etched in history, taught in classrooms across Japan and the rest of the world in an effort to ensure each new generation understands the horror of nuclear weapons and vows never to see them used again.

But shocking as the figures are, simply dusting them off around the anniversaries of the bombings every August won’t prevent the horrors of 65 years ago from one day being revisited, says filmmaker Shinpei Takeda.

“How many people died, what happened, what’s the radiation all about, how did they get treated — this information itself doesn’t make us feel anything. And if you don’t feel anything, the information itself doesn’t stop us from repeating the same thing.”

“Hiroshima Nagasaki Download” is Takeda and producer Eiji Wakamatsu’s deeply personal contribution to the process of keisho — the preservation and passing down of knowledge, in this case about the tragic events that brought the war to a close.

More than 200,000 died in the attacks on the two cities and their harrowing aftermath, yet hundreds of thousands more survived. Takeda and Wakamatsu’s 73-minute documentary film aims to help viewers “download” the lessons of Hiroshima and Nagasaki through the raw emotional power of these individuals’ stories.

Of course, “Hiroshima Nagasaki Download” is far from the first film to focus on the memories of atomic bomb survivors, or hibakusha. A number of documentaries have been released in the leadup to the 65th anniversary of the bombings, as filmmakers rush to capture survivors’ stories as their numbers dwindle.

“Download,” however, is set apart from many of these films not only stylistically but also geographically. The film is essentially a road movie along the west coast of North America from Vancouver to the San Francisco Bay area. Takeda and Wakamatsu interview 18 hibakusha (in Japanese) along the way, taking turns behind the camera and recording the filmmakers’ physical and emotional journey as well as that of the hibakusha themselves.

After well-received test screenings a year ago in Hiroshima and Nagasaki, and abroad from Doha, Qatar, to Mexico, Tokyo audiences finally got a chance to see “Hiroshima Nagasaki Download” over the August 14-15 weekend at the independent Tollywood Theater, an intimate screening space in Shimokitazawa. The film will show this fall in the United States at the DC Asian Pacific American Film Festival and, the filmmakers hope, at many more festivals to come.

On his decision to focus on survivors residing in Canada and the U.S., Takeda explains, “I thought it was a timely issue because they’re hibakushas born in Hiroshima and Nagasaki and have experienced these things, but they are also Americans as well. And they live in what was formerly called the ‘enemy state.’ They live in this country that dropped, to be precise, these bombs. . . . I wanted people to know about this.”

Today, some 1,000 hibakusha are estimated to live in the U.S. Having also interviewed atomic bomb survivors in Japan, Takeda says he has become keenly aware of the cultural differences in the style of storytelling between survivors in Japan and North America.

“The people here (in North America), I found that they are much more likely to tell us stories that are more personal. If you go to the U.S. you have to speak up in ‘I,’ in first-person, whereas in Japan such a notion is a little bit difficult, particularly with the older people. So when you ask, ‘What’s your story?’ they are not very likely to talk about it, even the normal older people.

“But when it comes to these hibakushas (in Japan), it becomes very political, so when you come public with your story you’re prone to lots of different political (factors). Also, the story of hibakushas is very established here (in Japan), so when you talk about something even a little bit different than what is told publicly it’s considered not very respectful.”

For Takeda, 31, a Japan-born filmmaker, visual artist and musician based in Tijuana, Mexico, the documentary was the culmination of years of involvement with the hibakusha issue. He has collected over 50 oral stories of hibakusha living in North and South America since 2005, many of which have been archived for the Peace Memorial Museum in Nagasaki.

“This was one of the manifestations of a long series of work I’ve been doing for the last five years. There is a lot of editing that we’re doing, and in that process there is a lot of responsibility that we have. For me it took me almost 5 years just to be able to be comfortable editing such a large story with my own lens. For the first four years I was overwhelmed,” he recalls. “Those other stories I edit are only in the museum and only people that go there can see them. So this was a way to present them in a way that’s much more accessible.”

Wakamatsu, 32, a high school friend of Takeda’s who spent about half of his childhood in the U.S., has been working for an international aid agency for the past eight years, two of which were spent in Afghanistan. The pair reconnected across continents while Wakamatsu was studying in the U.K., and Takeda told him about his film idea.

“I wanted to share how we, the people who don’t know the war, who haven’t experienced the war, how we receive and process and understand these stories,” explains Takeda. “So I had planned for this trip to go across from Canada to Mexico visiting about 20 hibakushas. (Eiji) happened to have free time so we went together.”

Inevitably, undertaking such an intense film project together rekindled their close bond. While in high school both students first shared a sense of the world at large when they backpacked throughout Thailand. During college they both held the same job, accompanying and translating for Asahi Shimbun journalists abroad, some of whom were covering nuclear abolition issues — another reason for their connection.

Before working on the film with Takeda, Wakamatsu had never met a hibakusha. He hopes that his initial unfamiliarity will make the documentary more accessible to the vast majority of viewers who have never heard these stories, and whose chances of ever meeting a survivor are becoming slimmer by the day.

“I represent those people that have never been exposed to these things. And throughout the trip I make comments about what I feel. It’s in the eye of not the professional, but the amateur. It’s very challenging because it’s not really comfortable to listen to people (describe) the melting, and burning, atrocities day after day. It’s really difficult.”

Early on in the film Wakamatsu comments on screen that the bombings “transcend all logical thinking.” Immersing themselves in survivors’ distressing stories day after day took a psychological toll on the filmmakers, a process that’s documented in the film.

“You go back to your hotel room and you can’t really calm down,” Wakamatsu explains. “And also, when we were editing we have to revisit that part. We have to listen to it again and again. It goes deep into your system. We would be editing and wouldn’t be able to get out of bed. We were in that situation for a few months throughout the whole process.”

Takeda places an acute emphasis on creating the “safest space” when setting up each interview. He compares the process to holding that person’s hand and slowly walking them on the road to what he calls the “epicenter of the memory,” where he can eventually push people to fully open up and share their experiences.

Takeda turns to Wakamatsu. “Remember the one time we were right in the middle of this very intense moment when somebody came and (rang the doorbell)? It took us another 20 minutes to come back to that energy level and that place. These things are not something that you can just talk about.”

In the first interview on the journey, Takeda and Wakamatsu meet Takeo Yamashiro in Vancouver, who was only 2 years old in Hiroshima at the time of the nuclear bombing. Although he doesn’t remember as much as older survivors, he still struggles to make sense of his experience.

As the filmmakers drive south, however, the intensity of the interviews seems to snowball as they probe deeper into the survivors’ psyches and reawaken suppressed memories. Hibakusha such as Miyuki Broadwater from Nagasaki, who married an American military officer and now resides in Spokane, Wash., become completely vulnerable as they open up for the first time in 65 years. Japanese-American May Yamaoka, who was 16 and visiting Japan with her family at the time of the attack, at first smiles as she reminisces about her trip to Hiroshima. Later, in a stream of tears, she describes her family’s relief when they found her sister’s body on top of a pile of corpses. They could now hold a proper burial for her sister.

In the final interview, Takashi Tanemori, who was an 8-year-old in Hiroshima when the bomb was dropped on the city, immediately pours out his anguish over losing most of his family and the painful experience of mistakenly being transferred for a few months to a mental institution in the U.S. After what feels like a cathartic release of pent-up emotion, Tanemori imparts a sense of hope and forgiveness as he describes the American nurse who ended up taking care of him, a boy who had lost and suffered so much in an incomprehensibly short period of time.

Takeda says he wants “to get people to understand the human story, the human consequences and what happens to each individual — how these bombs change individual lives (with) a memory that they had to survive (and) keep fighting to this day.”

By sheer coincidence, in San Francisco Takeda and Wakamatsu end up staying at a bed-and-breakfast owned by an Auschwitz survivor, Gloria Lyon. She recalls her utter joy on the day that her sense of smell came back decades after the gas chambers had destroyed it.

It is small, individual triumphs like these that Takeda wants viewers to remember, he says. “We’re not looking at them as just victims, (but at) their courage to keep living. I want people to see that. Even though we have little problems, insecurities . . . we move on and we keep living. That, to me, is a very important part of the film. That’s what I want people to get.”

For more information about future screenings of “Hiroshima Nagasaki Download” and how to purchase a copy on DVD, please visit www.atopus.net. Send comments and story ideas to community@japantimes.co.jp