“Moreover, the enemy has begun to employ a new and most cruel bomb, the power of which to do damage is, indeed, incalculable, taking the toll of many innocent lives.”
The bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, during the final chapter of World War II in August 1945, can almost seem like a bad dream. Perhaps it’s because atomic weapons haven’t been used since; or because further horrors — Pol Pot’s Cambodia, the Rwandan genocide, Kosovo and 9/11 — have dulled our memories; or perhaps because governments intent on employing a militarized foreign policy don’t want people to focus too much on the downside of war. Or maybe it’s just because the global superpower has been successful in painting “weapons of mass destruction” as what the evildoers have, not what was dropped from the Enola Gay over Hiroshima.
Whatever the reason, it certainly seems that the threat, or should I say the perceived fear, of nuclear war has faded compared with the concern shown nowadays over global warning or shoe bombs. But you can be sure that wherever you’re reading this article, there’s a missile targeting you right now, if not by Kim Jung Il, then certainly by Beijing, Moscow or Washington. The nuclear genie remains out of the bottle, and as atomic weaponry spreads into the quick-temper regions, and the superpowers steadfastly refuse to disarm, perhaps it’s time to revisit the tragedies of Aug. 6 and 9, 1945.
Along comes Japanese-American director Steven Okazaki with a moving and intensely personal look at the Hiroshima and Nagasaki bombings, “White Light/Black Rain: The Destruction of Hiroshima and Nagasaki (Hiroshima Nagasaki).”
With the WWII generation ever dwindling, Okazaki gave himself a clear and simple brief for his documentary: find the survivors of the bombings, and let them tell their stories.
In an interview with The Japan Times, Okazaki described how he was “tired of” the political debate surrounding the dropping of the atomic bombs. “The Japanese tell the story one way, which is: ‘Hiroshima and Nagasaki, a completely separate incident from WWII,’ ” says Okazaki. “It was just this one day with no connection to the rest of the war. And the Americans tell it another way, a very defensive way, and they cite their statistics about why it was necessary. But this discussion doesn’t get anywhere; neither side meets the other in any way. I needed to find a different way of approaching the subject, which was: leave the argument out, just tell the story.”
Okazaki sketches out the point in time, and the course of the war, through some quick montages of period newsreels, and then he starts inserting interviews with the survivors, hibakusha (bomb victims) from both cities — giving their personal stories. In an effective framing device, Okazaki has many of the hibakusha — now in their 60s and 70s — hold small black-and-white portraits of themselves as children in 1945.
Okazaki moves in clear, chronological order, from the days leading up to the bombings, to the destruction of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, and then to the agonizing aftermath, cutting between various survivors’ accounts to illuminate different aspects of the events. He also tracks down several of the U.S. airmen who flew on the planes that dropped the atomic bombs — and adds their perspectives. Finally, period footage shot in the cities after they were bombed, and harrowing hospital shots of burn and radiation victims, are included to horrific effect. No film other than the 1970 documentary “Hiroshima, Nagasaki” has included so much of this footage, which was classified for several decades by the U.S. government, obviously afraid of the effects it could have on public opinion.
The first thing that becomes clear from watching the film is that, even 60 years later, no one has left this trauma behind. Aside from the visible scars some hibakusha bear, many choke up when describing how they lost their families in an instant. All the survivors experienced this event as children, and story after story is about losing brothers or sisters or parents to collapsed buildings, fire, searing heat and the shock itself. There is, obviously, no film or photos of what happened on the ground during the bombings, so Okazaki weaves in paintings and drawings by survivors to illustrate what was happening. The stories are incredibly poignant, and although Okazaki has refrained from political statement, it’s hard to ignore the subtext: this holocaust was rained down upon families, women, children and infants. (Those interested in the legality or lack thereof in deliberately targeting civilians in wartime, see the 2003 American documentary “The Fog Of War.”)
Obviously, given the lingering prejudice against hibakusha within Japanese society, it must have been a huge step for some of these people to come forward, let alone — like Sumiteru Taniguchi — to reveal his scars to the camera. Okazaki relates that there were some holdouts. “On my first trip to Nagasaki, I saw a plaque which read that everyone within a certain radius of the bomb died instantly, except for an 8-year-old girl,” says the director. “She was deep in a shelter. She might have fallen asleep because they’d had an all-clear and everyone else came out. So she was the closest person to the explosion who survived.”
The filmmaker decided to find out whether she was still alive, but when they tracked her down living outside Tokyo and tried to get in touch, “we got this message back saying ‘Please don’t contact me again,’ ” said Okazaki. “She said ‘my husband is the only person who knows. My family doesn’t know. We have a family business, and no one knows. My husband says it will hurt our business, hurt our children.’ So even after 60 years . . . but on the other hand, other people were saying ‘I’m over 60, what do I have to lose?,’ or ‘If I don’t tell my story now, when?’ But we really wanted to get some people who hadn’t (told their story) before.”
Okazaki, a 55-year-old filmmaker living in Berkeley, California, says that he had been interested in the atomic bombings for a long time. One of the hibakusha in the film, Etsuko Nagano, had moved to the United States and was a friend of Okazaki’s family in Los Angeles. Filmgoers with long memories may recall Okazaki’s 1987 feature debut, “Living On Tokyo Time.” The lead character in that film, a listless, ambitionless slacker playing in going-nowhere bands, apparently contains a lot of Okazaki himself. “I was pretty introverted,” he said. “I think music for me was the same thing as film, a way of forcing myself to engage the world.”
When asked whether being Japanese-American gave him a unique perspective to explore an issue that divides the two nations, such as the atomic bombings, Okazaki replied: “I feel very detached from Japanese culture — an observer more than part of it. And frankly I feel the same way as an American, because I grew up with a minority consciousness — both my parents were put in (wartime) internment camps. I know I’m not fully part of that culture either. I’ve always felt like I was floating in the Pacific, looking both ways.”
On the American side, Okazaki interviewed some of the U.S. airmen who were on the planes that dropped the bombs. Predictably, none of them express any regret. Okazaki says: “I sort of understand their take on it. They were soldiers on a mission, and they fulfilled it. There’s no way you can say ‘I killed 140,000 people’ and take full responsibility for that.
“What was surprising to me is they appear to consciously have learned very little about what happened on the ground. They were very ignorant of atomic radiation. One of them said something like ‘it’s more dangerous to cross the street.’ And this was a director at Los Alamos (the New Mexico-based nuclear-test site). Actually, one of the Americans in the film, a scientist — he’s Catholic — said ‘actually, we did them (Nagasaki’s large Christian population) a favor by getting them to God faster.’ But he said that off-camera, unfortunately.”
Americans may be in denial regarding the grave reality of their wartime actions, but denial on the Japanese side goes even further, as evidenced recently by the neocon movement to deny the Nanking Massacre, the forced suicides on Okinawa, that Japan was an aggressor nation and that civilian women known as “comfort women” were forced into prostitution by the military. (And the next time Prime Minister Shinzo Abe says there is no evidence to support this claim, will someone please ask him what he considers the firsthand testimony of surviving women? Or why the Japanese military destroyed so many documents in the war’s dying days, before the U.S. could get them?)
“It seems like people are going to their graves without the Japanese side acknowledging their tragedies,” comments Okazaki. “But with these political issues with Article 9 (of the Constitution, the “war-renouncing clause”), Japan is clearly at a turning point where it has to decide what WWII means. They’ve come to the point where people actually believe that all Japan’s postwar successes are just because Japanese are industrious and smart, and not because they’ve pointed their whole economy toward household goods and not toward the military.”
The effects of this neocon movement to deny the past are apparent right from the film’s opening scene, where Okazaki stops youths in the teenage mecca of Takeshita-dori, in Tokyo’s Harajuku district, and asks them the significance of Aug. 6, 1945 — none can answer. Says Okazaki: “I thought we’d interview 30 kids or so, and some would know, some wouldn’t. I couldn’t imagine worse than 60 percent getting it. So we went down the street, and the first eight kids I interviewed are all in the film. None of them knew. I stopped filming; I thought this is such a huge statement. I did not expect it at all. And I didn’t cut anyone out — I’m not Michael Moore, I don’t have a message that I’ll cheat for.” Admittedly, the kids who would know probably don’t hang out on Takeshita-dori, but that’s not to say the Harajuku kids aren’t representative. Okazaki points to a recent poll in Nagasaki, where only about 30 percent of youths questioned could name the date that the city was nuked.
“White Light/Black Rain: The Destruction of Hiroshima and Nagasaki (Hiroshima Nagasaki)” screens in English on Aug. 12 and Aug. 26, 6:50 p.m., at Iwanami Hall, 10F Iwanami Jimbo-cho Bldg., 2-1 Kanda Jimbo-cho, Chiyoda-ku, Tokyo. Tickets: ¥1,800. For more information, call the theater on (03) 3262-5252. The film is now showing in Japanese four times daily at Iwanami Hall in Tokyo and five times daily at Theatre Umeda, Osaka ( 6359-1080). See this Sunday’s CLOSE-UP interview with Steve Leeper, the first American to chair the Hiroshima Peace Culture Foundation.
HIROSHIMA ON FILM
“KUROI AME (Black Rain)”
Director Shohei Imamura is one of the few social critics to have worked in Japan’s film industry, and this 1989 film is his masterpiece. Starring Yoshiko Tanaka as a survivor of the atomic bombing, “Black Rain” — which refers to the radioactive ash that rained down after the initial destruction — shows how the aftereffects were far more insidious than the bomb but just as cruel. Shot in black and white — maybe to adopt the look of post-blast footage — “Black Rain” contains brief but harrowing scenes of the carnage immediately after the explosion. The bulk of the film deals with prejudice against the survivors, shown here in Tanaka’s inability to find a husband, despite outward good health, due to fears of radiation poisoning.
“HADASHI NO GEN (Barefoot Gen)”
The Hiroshima bombing done in quintessentially kawaii (cute) anime style. This sounds disconcerting but works remarkably well, mostly due to the autobiographical script by survivor Keiji Nakazawa. The 1983 film follows 6-year-old Gen, who loses half his family in the attack and tries to save his mother and baby sister in the aftermath. Like recent Cannes entry “Persepolis,” the film is effective in contrasting anime’s cuteness with disturbing material; watching charred, half-dead survivors in cartoon form, one feels grateful that it’s not more real. The animation shows its years but has a retro charm. Devastatingly effective when popped into the DVD player without saying any more than “want to see some classic Japanese anime?”
“HIROSHIMA, MON AMOUR”
Made in 1959 by French documentary filmmaker Alain Resnais, this classic film rings true with an intellectual integrity and an artistic ambition that are rare in modern cinema. A French actress (Emmanuelle Riva) has an affair with a Japanese engineer (Eiji Okada) while on a shoot in Hiroshima for an antiwar film. Through this affair, she recalls her own past in France; a German lover, a soldier, who was killed, and her own humiliation as a collaborator. Resnais attempts to twin the personal and the political, and asks us how love can exist in an age of such atrocity. The tour-de-force opening shot shows death — bodies entwined in a tomb of post-blast ash — dissolving into life, the entwined bodies of the lovers.