April 2, 2021
Hiroshima – Japan, 1953
Hideo Sekigawa’s 1953 film Hiroshima is a paradoxically potent mess. First, a little context. In the aftermath of the Second World War, the United States, led by General Douglas A. MacArthur, occupied Japan and set about its “rehabilitation.” Over the next six years, the Japanese public heard and saw little about the bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki: photos and documentary footage were deemed state secrets, textbooks avoided mentioning it, and motion picture studios were told to steer clear of the subject. It seems logical to assume, therefore, that two things happened. First, the public’s emotional response to the bombings lessened. In fairness, most people had more pressing needs – avoiding poverty and starvation, saying farewell to loved ones lost, rebuilding the infrastructure necessary for a society to function. Second, it made people less empathetic to the survivors of the blasts. After all, it is almost impossible to be empathetic to experiences to which you are oblivious.
I believe Sekigawa meant for his film to be a wrecking ball to these trends, to be an agent of re-education, enforcing the dual messages that it was that bad and there are still victims of the blast among us. His intended audience, therefore, was likely the domestic market, for even though it is doubtful that the citizens of other nations knew the full extent of the atomic bomb’s horrors, there are scenes in the film that blatantly seek to shame and blame the United States, including a reading of a German judge’s assessment that the decision to use the atomic bomb was a war crime.
The film begins with a narration of events on the morning of August 6, 1945, and it includes the curious assertion that Theodore Van Kirk, the navigator of the Enola Gay, had a moment of deep reflection and regret just before the bomb was dropped. From there, we enter a classroom in post-war Japan during an English lesson. There is a sudden scream – a student’s nose is bleeding. Later, at a hospital the student, tragically aware of her mortality, looks up and proclaims, “I don’t want to die.” From a doctor, her teacher, Mr. Kitagawa (played by Eiji Okada, who starred in Alain Resnais’s Hiroshima Mon Amour, a film that includes many images from Hiroshima), is given the awful news: leukemia. And if you are unaware of just how devastating that condition is, don’t worry. The movie spends the next ten minutes explaining it to you.
Heavy-handed as it is, this section of the film accomplishes two things. It adequately conveys the notion that there were victims of the atomic bomb long after August 1945 and it gives us a window into the psychological impact that the bombing had the survivors sense of security. In one scene, we hear a student tellingly voice a variation of the slippery slope fallacy, detaining a series of hypothetical events that despite starting rather insignificantly culminate in the United States once again using nuclear weapons on Japan. Thoughts like that must have been maddening.
The film then flashes back to early August 1945. School is in session, but little academic learning is being done. Students seem to be seen as either future soldiers or sources of manual labor. In one scene, they are sent to remove the rubble of a bombed-out building. It is on one such occasion when they hear the sounds of a single “B.” What should they do? Seek shelter? Keep working? Their hesitancy is magnified by the lack of an air raid siren. A teacher shields her eyes from the sun to get a better look. What follows is an unforgettable series of events, all detailing the immediate aftermath of the bombing. Students trapped under a collapsed school. The bodies of dead school girls lying in the rubble of a building that just moments earlier had been standing. A naked and burned toddler standing amidst the chaos crying. Trapped students calling out their names so their teacher knows who has survived. A husband’s futile efforts to free his wife from the debris. Processions of shell-shocked wounded survivors shakily making their way toward what they hope is help. A mother dying in the arms of a daughter not even out of elementary school. The unbroken, soul-piercing calls for mom.
It’s powerful stuff, and had Sekigawa ended the film here, I have no doubt it would be better known today. However, Sekigawa overextends the film’s scope, causing it to lose focus and diminishing its power. There are unnecessary scenes critical of the government, and new characters pop up only to be forgotten a moment later. A young boy who survived the bombing is apparently adopted. Good for him, but Sekigawa never makes us understand the boy’s feelings. Does he suffer from survivor’s guilt or post-traumatic stress disorder? We never know. There’s an interesting conversation about marriage that seems to exist just so the young woman can tell the audience that survivors of the blast can never marry. And periodically we go back to the teacher and his and his students’ steps in the learning process. The film even finds a way to weave in themes from Chaplin’s Monsieur Verdoux and images possibly inspired by Abel Gance’s J’Accuse.
Some of these parts are interesting, yet they never add up. You could argue that Sekigawa’s point is to give us a comprehensive experience, yet the result of this approach is detachment. We don’t feel for characters individually, and while this does not lessen the impact of the parts of film detailing the events of August 6, 1945, it does make the film’s final chapter much less engaging. We should root for characters to reunite, find love, and find homes. There’s simply no time to – the narrative changes too quickly. Another problem: Segikawa wants to educate the public, yet he shows images of long processions making their way to the Atomic Bomb Dome to pay their respects. Such images contradict the notion that the public is unaware of the scale of the tragedy.
So, as I said, the film is a mess, but in its finest moments it moves and stirs you. As I watched the film, I was struck by the survivors’ instinctual impulse to move. Here are characters wh have just undergone a truly horrifying experience, they are wounded and bleeding; their shocked expressions never waver. And yet they have the presence of mind both to move and to take others with them. They demonstrate perseverance, instead of fatalism, and determination in the face of overwhelming obstacles. Potent, indeed. (on DVD and Blu-ray from Arrow)
*Hiroshima is in Japanese and English with English subtitles.