“Iwas put in charge of this unbearably painful filming job. Even if you consider a war between two countries to be unavoidable, why, you wonder, must innocent civilians be forced to go through such suffering?
“But a cameraman must face up to whatever he films, however horrified he is by it. It struck me that this film record would someday, in some way, come to serve a purpose.”
Thus wrote Harry Mimura — or, to use his Japanese name, Akira Mimura — on his journey from Tokyo to Nagasaki and Hiroshima and some 20 other devastated Japanese cities in March and April 1946.
Lt. Col. Daniel A. McGovern, a combat photographer with the U.S. Army Air Force who had been with the Strategic Bombing Survey team that arrived in Japan in the first week of September 1945, had chosen Mimura to take charge of the camera for that tour the following year. The result was a record of moving pictures in color that provide an invaluable look into the ways that the Japanese people coped with survival in the first year after the war.
Mimura, who had worked in Hollywood for years, was the ideal choice in all ways except one. He had never before shot using color film.
Yet McGovern was to say years later: “He learned a lot. But we learned a lot from him, too.”
A specially equipped train, on which the film crew carried all its camera and other equipment, left Tokyo, first traveling to Nagasaki. Mimura used the time on the journey to bone up on color filming from an American manual he brought with him.
The footage is not the sort that we are used to seeing of the decimated cities. It is full of people, many of them going about their lives as best as they can. Women in colorful kimonos are out and about on errands. Children smile. Panoramic shots from high vantage points give a sense of scale to the destruction and the pace of life among the remaining ruins. (Mimura would sometimes borrow fire-truck ladders from the authorities to get those shots.)
“I think he wanted to show the way of life of the Japanese people,” said McGovern.
Who was this remarkable man, successful as a cinemaphotographer in both the U.S. and the Japanese film worlds?
Akira Mimura was born 111 years ago this month in what is today Etajima City, an island town in Hiroshima Bay and home, from its founding in 1888, of one of Japan’s most prestigious military educational institutions, the Imperial Japanese Naval Academy (now the Maritime Self-Defense Force Naval Academy). It was this academy that produced such illustrious figures as Isoroku Yamamoto, commander in chief of Japanese forces in the early years of World War II.
The site of Mimura’s birth was no happenstance. His father, Kinsaburo, was a colonel in the navy and subsequently, for 11 months from Dec. 1, 1917, captain of the battleship Kirishima.
After finishing middle school in Zushi, Kanagawa Prefecture — close to the huge Yokosuka naval base — Mimura was sent to the United States. There, he entered the Nicholson School for Science and Math — then as now located on Peoria Street by Lake Michigan in downtown Chicago — with, no doubt, ears ringing with his father’s wishes for him to pursue what was then the most reputable of professions in Japan, namely that of the soldier.
But Mimura, now generally known by the American name Harry he picked up at that time, entertained quite different aspirations. He left for New York, where he studied filmmaking, then set out for the film capital of the U.S., Los Angeles, where, in 1929, he landed work as an assistant cameraman on “The Trespasser,” Gloria Swanson’s first talkie. Later that year, too, he numbered among the crew of “Condemned,” a film in which the star, Ronald Coleman, was nominated for an Academy Award.
In 1930, he worked on the Howard Hughes-directed film “Hell’s Angels,” which starred Jean Harlow in a tale about about two brothers in the British Royal Flying Corps.
From then on, Mimura, the only Japanese working behind the camera in Hollywood at the time, ended up shooting some five dozen films before returning home in 1934.
Back in Japan, he began making films as director of photography the very next year, collaborating on such major works as “Tokyo Rhapsody,” directed by Osamu Fushimizu and starring crooner Ichiro Fujiyama — who gave Japan one of its greatest prewar hits with his song of the same name; and a tragedy set in the middle of the feudal Edo Period (1603-1867), “Ballad of the Paper Balloons,” directed by Sadao Yamanaka.
Mimura collaborated again with Fushimizu as director of photography on the iconic wartime propaganda movie “China Night”; and Akira Kurosawa, for whom, in the making of “Sanshiro Sugata” in 1942, he fulfilled the same role. Then, after being conscripted in 1944, he spent the rest of the war translating U.S. radio broadcasts.
So, at war’s end, the seasoned Japanese cinematographer with an American name was the perfect choice to enlist into recording the terrible aftermath.
However, in 1946 — the year he shot his color footage of Japan’s razed cities — Mimura also made his postwar debut behind a movie camera with “Toho Show Boat,” a musical once again starring Fujiyama, then recently repatriated from a POW camp in Indonesia. In that sense, this film marks the comeback of two celebrated Japanese film artists.
In 1947, Mimura joined the production company Shintoho that had been founded in March of that year, and this led to him being offered a lot of work. Ironically, it was the defection of many Toho actors to the new company that created an opening at Toho for a “new face” named Toshiro Mifune, who was to become Japan’s most famous postwar screen actor.
From that time on, Mimura shot 28 features in Japan. He was also cameraman on the foreign locations of the U.S. blockbuster, “Around the World in Eighty Days.” In 1955, he directed, cowrote and photographed his own film, “Kieta Chūtai” (“The Vanished Company”), about a group of Japanese soldiers in Soviet-occupied territory in 1941.
All in all, the career of Akira “Harry” Mimura is unique, not only in the immense contribution he made to film culture in Japan and the U.S., but in the fact that he was accepted as a master of his art in both countries. And that, despite the enmity engendered by the war and the lingering bitterness that remained in many circles after it.
He died in December 1985 and is buried in the cemetery that is the final resting place of scores of people who were active in the film industry, Forest Lawn Memorial Park in Los Angeles’ Hollywood Hills.
I particularly like something of his that was published in the launch issue of the magazine Eiga Satsuei (Cinema Photography) on Jan. 20, 1962, since it may quite possibly be the most concise and profound description of that art.
Mimura wrote: “Whatever changes may come, the basis of it all will always be light and shadow. … Cinema photography differs from still photography in that the person being filmed is in motion. … The cinema photographer matches the story by factoring in what is being shot, its continuity, the mood, etc., constantly bearing in mind the primary condition: that the images must appeal to the viewer. What’s required is the technique to express the narrative on film without calling attention to the camera.”