In the early 1960s, Hisashi Inoue, the author of the original play “The Face of Jizo,” was working under contract as a writer at NHK. The idea for the play came when he was sent to Hiroshima in the summer to do a program about the anti-nuclear movement.
“I met victims of the bomb and I immediately thought: ‘Well, I can’t write about this. It is just too awful,’ ” he recalled in a recent interview. “Anyway, I did manage to write the program when I returned to Tokyo, and that was that.
“But around this time some authors, like Kenzaburo Oe, were taking up Hiroshima and writing about it. And there was a swing away, in Hiroshima, from the politicized peace image of the bomb. It was then that I thought I could sit down and write a play.”
In “The Face of Jizo,” Mitsue, the young daughter, is constantly struggling with herself. She has tried to forget what happened in her city in August 1945. Her father, Takezo, who died in the blast, has come back to life to tell his daughter that she must go on living. She feels responsible for his death. “I am the daughter whose father fell into a sea of flames worse than hell and I ran away from it,” she says to her father toward the end of the play and film. “A human being like that has no right to be happy.”
The film’s director, Kazuo Kuroki, was drawn to Inoue’s play by a deep sense of identification with the theme of war and how it disfigures all people — combatants and civilians alike — who are affected by it.
“I was brought up in colonized Manchuria,” he told me, “and being a little kid, I had no idea of where I was. I kept looking around and thinking, ‘Why are there so many people here who speak Chinese?’ I was sent back to Japan in 1942, however, when I was just 12. By 1945, I was put to work in an airplane factory.
“I remember times when there were air raids and we kids would be told to go to shelters. Some of the kids just walked along toward the shelters reading books. I hated reading in those days and just looked around. I saw what looked like a couple of crows coming our way so I hit the dirt. My friends who were reading didn’t notice those crows — actually bombs — and they died.
“I have never forgotten seeing them die, and over the past 60 years or so I have had pangs of conscience about surviving them.
“After the war I still couldn’t get into books, and, needless to say, a lot of us didn’t trust teachers anymore. Films were my real consolation, films by Kurosawa and Keisuke Kinoshita and Tadashi Imai, especially his ‘Until We Meet Again.’ Then, in the early ’50s, when the Korean War was on and the Golden Pavilion in Kyoto was burned to the ground, I found myself a student at Doshisha University in Kyoto. But I still wouldn’t pick up a book. In fact, I never went to class. Over the four years of university, I think I was in class altogether for only one month.”
The decade of the 1950s was known in Japan for soul-searching war films, with such brutal examinations of Japan’s role as seen in “Fires on the Plain (Nobi)” and “The Human Condition (Ningen no Joken)” and genuinely humanistic treatment of human motivation in war and its aftermath as in “The Harp of Burma.” Then, in the early ’60s, the Japanese began to move away from self-searching introspection, and few films were made that presented the grim truths of the 15-year-long Asia-Pacific invasion.
“As for me,” Kuroki revealed, “the war was not over inside me. In fact, it has never been brought to a conclusion in this country because responsibility for its heinous actions has never been taken, neither by the emperor, the government nor by the people. Japan today is like a wolf in lamb’s clothing. The country is preparing itself, in the name of self-defense, for warlike action. Oh, I vividly remember the day we found out Pearl Harbor was bombed. Of course I was a kid, in occupied China, but you should have seen it. Everybody jumped for joy. And the same thing was happening all over Japan. Japanese people became convinced, on that day, that they were fighting to liberate Asia from the white man.”
Kuroki went on to explain that his own war experiences spurred him on to film Inoue’s play, which received its premiere in September 1994.
“I have been an admirer of Inoue’s drama for many years. He is a genius at portraying ordinary people and their fate on stage. And when I saw the play of ‘The Face of Jizo,’ it immediately linked up with what I have been carrying around inside myself for the past 60 years: that we Japanese have never come to terms with the suffering and misery and guilt of the war. Just as Takezo, the father, tells his daughter, at the end, that she must go on living to teach people that they must never, under any circumstances, repeat a tragedy such as Hiroshima, I too felt that I had to convey this message to people by making this play into a film. Japan is a country where the mass media is cowardly. Even today they all basically follow the official line. If we don’t do something about that, who will?”
Inoue has written in the introduction to “The Face of Jizo” that he in no way desires to excuse Japan’s actions during the years of hostilities. He clearly states, “At the time, the Japanese were the victimizers in what they did in Asia. They were the perpetrators of wrong throughout Asia. However, I remain adamant that those two atomic bombs were dropped not only on the Japanese but on all humankind. The people exposed to those bombs represent all people around the world in the second half of the 20th century.
“For this reason it is not from a victim’s mentality that I write about this. Feigning ignorance of the human catastrophe that occurred in Hiroshima and Nagasaki would constitute, as one person among the more than six billion on the Earth, an immoral choice. In all likelihood, my life will be over when I have finished writing about Hiroshima and Nagasaki.”
Both the play and film versions of “The Face of Jizo” constitute powerful artistic statements made about the destruction of life by nuclear weapons. The deeply moving performances in the film by Rie Miyazawa as Mitsue and Yoshio Harada as Takezo underscore the message of the original: that it is the millions upon millions of personal tragedies, whatever country “wins,” that make war an intolerable disaster for all of us.
In the story, there is a statue of Jizo, the guardian deity of children, in their garden. When the bomb is dropped, the heat of the blast melts half of the Jizo’s face. This gentle deity becomes a symbol of Mitsue’s miraculously returned father.
“Your face was so badly burnt then, Daddy, melted away like the face of this Jizo,” Mitsue says. “And I just did nothing, left you there and ran away.”
But Takezo, dead or alive, cannot rest until he knows that those who have had the fortune to survive still deserve a modest chance of happiness.
Inoue and now, in the film, Kuroki, have brought him back to life to tell his own daughter, and all of us, just that.
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