‘Ishibumi’: Tragic history set in stone

by Mark Schilling

An annual ritual on Japanese television on or around Aug. 6 is a number of special programs about the atomic bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. Truth be told, after many years in this country I tune out more than I tune in. Just as the bombings were political acts, so are the many memorial programs that repeat an unimpeachable message — “No more Hiroshimas and Nagasakis” — with an implied subtext of Japan as blameless victim that elides more than it illuminates.

One film about the Hiroshima bombing that drills into emotional bedrock instead of retailing familiar platitudes is “Ishibumi,” (“Stone Monument”) Hirokazu Koreeda’s reworking of a classic 1969 TV program produced by Hiroshima Television. The movie is currently screening at PorePore Theater in Tokyo’s Higashi Nakano district and elsewhere around Japan.

The focus of the original TV program and the book that accompanied it were the 322 first-year students and four teachers at Hiroshima Second Middle School who were engaged in demolition work only 500 meters from the hypocenter of the blast and died either on the spot or soon after. Their survivors gathered testimonies about their last words and actions that formed the basis of the book and program.

Ishibumi
Rating
Run Time 85 mins
Language Japanese

This would seem to be material ripe for tear-jerker treatment, but Koreeda’s approach — at once elegiac and unsentimental — raises it to the level of universal tragedy. The staging by art director Yukio Horio is simple: Actress Haruka Ayase, a Hiroshima native who appeared in Koreeda’s 2015 drama “Our Little Sister” (“Umimachi Diary”), sits alone on a straight-back chair and reads excerpts from the testimonies. Meanwhile, photographs of their subjects are projected onto plain wood boxes beside her and on a curving screen behind her. These readings are interspersed with scenes of journalist Akira Ikegami interviewing victims’ family members and others, mostly in Hiroshima settings where it is now impossible to imagine the horrors of seven decades ago (though he also visits the heart-wrenching Peace Memorial Museum).

Having not seen the 1969 program, I can’t say how Ayase compares to original narrator Haruko Sugimura, famed supporting actress in the films of Yasujiro Ozu, Mikio Naruse and other Golden Age masters. What she does bring to her readings is not only the expected sympathy, but an edge of anger that adds tension and focus without overly obvious dramatization. This is not reading so much as witnessing.

The waste of young lives is one obvious target, as is the cruel manner of the students’ deaths. Despite being near the hypocenter, two-thirds survived the initial blast with wounds and radiation poisoning. Some cried out for their parents in agony while others somehow made it home, but none survived.

They were children of their culture and time, who had been educated to regard death for their country and Emperor as an honor and, if the war continued and the invaders came, an inevitability. One boy, after taking final leave of his siblings, asked his mother to tell his grandfather in Kagoshima that he had died “splendidly” (“rippa ni”). And yet they were not warriors but 12- and 13-year-old children, as period footage of the boys laughing and roughhousing shows.

So it’s shocking to see their surviving contemporaries now in their 80s, including one elderly man who, on finding his dead brother’s tattered school uniform in the Peace Museum, announces, “I’ve come.” The brother’s faded black-and-white photo seems to stir to life, illuminating the enormity of his loss.

The survivors captured by Koreeda’s camera are now frail bridges to the past that will soon be swept away. Thus one of Japan’s best current directors recording their voices and reviving their testimonies for a new generation is significant. War memorials come around once a year; a film like this, not so often.