Films and TV programs about the atomic bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki are many, including Akira Kurosawa’s 1991 drama “Rhapsody in August” and Hirokazu Kore-eda’s 2015 made-for-TV documentary “Ishibumi.”

Until Hiroshi Kurosaki’s new film “Gift of Fire,” however, none have dealt with Japan’s own effort to build an atomic bomb during World War II. A director for public broadcaster NHK whose credits include the hit morning drama “Hiyokko” (2017) and the serial drama “Reach Beyond the Blue Sky,” which is currently airing on Sunday nights, Kurosaki started research for the film more than a decade ago, inspired by the journal of a scientist on the bomb-building project.

His finished script, then titled “Prometheus’ Fire,” won a special mention at the 2015 Sundance Institute/NHK Awards, and a judge of the contest, NHK producer Katsuhiro Tsuchiya, offered to help put Kurosaki’s vision on the screen. They were later joined by Los Angeles-based veteran producer and distributor Ko Mori, who wanted to make a film that could play in international markets as well as Japan.

Their efforts paid off: “Gift of Fire” was broadcast on NHK last year on Aug. 15 and opened in theaters across Japan this month. It has also been selected for the 13th season of Asian Pop-Up Cinema, a semi-annual Asian film festival in Chicago. However, given the drama inherent in this true story, with those involved in the project knowing victory or defeat for Japan was at stake, why did it take so long for someone to make it into a film?

Much of it has to do with the horrifying devastation of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. After the 1945 atomic bombings, Kurosaki explains, nuclear energy acquired a negative image.

“It was considered to be the bad guy around the world,” he says. “(Japan’s atomic bomb project) didn’t become a big news item. Instead it became something like a taboo that you couldn’t talk about.”

But after the war, the United States, which had become the world’s strongest nuclear superpower, worked with Japan to promote the peaceful use of atomic energy.

“It was a very effective campaign,” Kurosaki says. “Nuclear energy became the good guy. … But the fact that Japan had tried to make an atomic bomb was covered up, though the people who knew, knew.

There was also the problem of how Japan was portrayed in novels and films about the war. “In the films shown to the Japanese audience, Japan was attacked by America,” Kurosaki says. “They never saw anyone hit by a Japanese air raid, instead it was Tokyo that was being bombed heavily. In the stories, the Japanese were purely victims. The fact that Japanese also tried to make an atomic bomb didn’t fit that narrative.”

Even decades later, changing that narrative was not easy.

“We had a problem raising money,” Kurosaki says. “Some people told me I’d better give up making such a dangerous movie.” The Japanese audience, he was told, would find it painful to watch. “Actually, we couldn’t find a producer who said they would make it, until we met Mori,” he adds.

For Kurosaki the film became a mission he had to accomplish, despite years of rejections. “It’s been 76 years since the war ended,” he says. “The people who knew that time are quickly dying off and firsthand knowledge about the war is quickly disappearing. For Japanese it’s becoming something like a folk tale. I thought I had to make the film now or maybe lose the chance forever.”

At the same time, neither Kurosaki nor anyone in the cast had any personal experiences with war, forcing the director to use his imagination more than usual. In his mind, the film’s setting of wartime Kyoto was not a completely dark place to be.

“When we open the curtains in the morning and see that the weather is good, our spirits lift,” he says. “For people of that time it may have felt even better since each day was so important. For them nice weather, a pleasant breeze and the beauty of Kyoto’s streets were more precious than we can imagine today.”

That live-for-the-moment feeling is reflected in the words and actions of the film’s three principal characters: Shu (Yuya Yagira), an eager research student participating in the bomb project; Hiroyuki (Haruma Miura), Shu’s soldier brother who has returned from the front; and Setsu (Kasumi Arimura), the siblings’ childhood playmate who is now working in a military spinning mill, though her thoughts are on life after the war — just as Hiroyuki’s thoughts are on her.

“All three are leading different lives, but they are living their youth with passion. I wanted to communicate that to the audience,” Kurosaki says. “I think if they see it, they’ll understand that it’s a positive film.”

Alongside the personal narrative is the story of the effort to build the atomic bomb, led by an enigmatic professor named Bunsaku Arakatsu (Jun Kunimura). However, compared to America’s Manhattan Project, which employed thousands and cost millions, Arakatsu has scant resources and little information about the enemy’s progress.

“To be honest, what the (researchers) were doing had no practical reality,” Kurosaki says. “They had blueprints for a centrifuge and rotor, but I don’t believe they made anything. They had a very long road ahead of them, given they were trying to make a bomb from experimental machines. I think they knew they could never make it during the war.”

The film doesn’t paint the researchers as one-dimensional heroes or villains. Arakatsu wants to protect his student scientists from death on the frontlines, though some are yearning to go. This makes him, as Kurosaki notes, “a traitor to his country by the standards of the day.”

“He has two faces, all of them have two faces,” he says. “In their hearts they are a mix of justice and evil. They aren’t thinking only of peace. They are instead thinking only of science. For them science is the most important thing. People may die because of their science, but they think it can’t be helped.”

This attitude is exemplified by their research trip to Hiroshima after the atomic bombing, with Arakatsu and his team collecting samples in the midst of death and suffering. “They aren’t trying to help the wounded, they didn’t go there for that. They went there to do experiments,” Kurosaki says.

He compares their actions to the ethical quandary of whether a filmmaker such as himself should aid victims when covering a fire or tsunami.

“We have our mission, which is to film, not help,” he says. “(The researchers’) No. 1 priority was science. Ours is filmmaking, so we resemble each other a bit. That’s a really scary way to be.”

Hiroshi Kurosaki’s “Gift of Fire” is now showing at theaters nationwide. For more information, visit https://taiyounoko-movie.jp (Japanese only).

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