The atomic bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, in my opinion, are among the most horrific war-time acts the world has ever seen. They killed between 129,000 and 226,000 people (it’s difficult to say for certain, due to the lingering effects of radiation), most of whom were civilians. American justification for the bombings is open to debate, but the devastation caused is undoubtable. The very nature of world conflict changed afterwards and the fear of nuclear war has lingered ever since.
Though this fear has been tapped into for countless films, particularly the atomic monster movies of the 50s, there are surprisingly few that have tackled the subject of the bombings head-on, particularly in the West. I guess the guilt Americans might feel over the act might have something to do with the bombings rarely being portrayed in detail in Hollywood, but there aren’t many well-known Japanese films that have travelled overseas either.
This is, or at least was, partly due to the fact that anything criticising the Supreme Commander of the Allied forces, General Douglas MacArthur, was prohibited after the occupation of Japan. No visual or verbal description of the devastation caused by Allied attacks was allowed either. The fact Japan was being occupied at all was even suppressed to an extent, or kept quiet, at least. So films about the bombings were effectively banned until 1952, when the occupation ended. A couple of occupation-backed documentaries/propaganda pieces were made before this time and some attempts were made to touch on the subject, such as The Bells of Nagasaki, but these were heavily censored.
Filmmakers were quick on the mark once the occupation ended though. One of the earliest post-occupation films tackling the bombings was Children of Hiroshima, which was based on a novel by survivor Arata Osada. This was based 4-years after the event, looking at the effects it had on the lives of those from the city.
Soon following this was Hideo Sekigawa’s Hiroshima, which had to be made independently due to the mixed critical reception of Children of Hiroshima. It took a more shockingly in-your-face approach, beginning and ending seven-years after the bombing, examining the physical and mental effects that lingered, but flashing back for the bulk of the film to depict the event itself and its direct aftermath. It proved too powerful and politically sensitive at the time though, so was soon pulled out of circulation following its original release. It did make it to screens overseas in 1955, but only in a heavily cut form and shots from the film were reused in Alain Resnais’ Hiroshima Mon Amour too (which interestingly also starred Eiji Okada). So, the film in its full form has long been locked away but it’s finally seeing the light of day, with Arrow Academy restoring it to its complete version and releasing it on Blu-ray.
As mentioned, Hiroshima is bookmarked by scenes set 7-years after the bombing and centres around a class of school children, who discuss the repercussions with their teacher (Eiji Okada) after seemingly keeping their feelings publically repressed on the subject. One of the class falls ill with leukaemia, most likely caused by the blast’s radiation, and we also learn of and later meet a young man who lost his family in the bombing and later fell into a morally bankrupt life. In between this, we witness, in horrific detail, the bombing itself and its aftermath, all from within the city itself, following various ordinary citizens whose lives were devastated by the event.
It’s a very human retelling of the bombing then, as we don’t see much of the military from either side, other than one scene of a meeting between scientists and top brass. The group discuss what to do about the situation and how to spin it to the public, either downplaying the incident or stirring up hatred for the enemy. Otherwise, we’re simply thrown in to act as witnesses to the atrocity.
As you might expect then, it’s a tough watch. Although some of the performances, costumes and makeup are a little dated and over-the-top, it’s an incredibly believable depiction of the carnage caused by the bomb, particularly for a film from the period. It’s so brutal and relentless, avoiding artful stylistic flourishes and sentimentality, that it leaves you hollow rather than pulling at the heartstrings. I couldn’t hold back the tears for a couple of scenes though, particularly when a man who’s been desperately searching for his son finally finds him, but only a little too late to see him alive. He graciously thanks the young boy who led him to the body and picks it up, commenting on how it had been such a long time since he’d carried his boy on his back. Being a father, that just destroyed me.
The sections set in the ‘present’ are quite illuminating too, touching on a range of effects the bomb had on people. On top of the boy who went ‘off-the-rails’, we meet a girl who is devastated by the fact her disability will likely prevent her ever getting married. This and other topics discussed help relate the wide reach the destruction truly had.
It’s not a subtle film, of course, but dropping atomic bombs on two major cities populated by innocent civilians wasn’t particularly subtle either. It’s a devastating, relentlessly gruelling experience that leaves you drained but also angry that this could ever have been allowed to happen. Films like this aren’t easy viewing, but we need reminding about events like this and what destruction they truly caused, so that hopefully they’ll never happen again.
Hiroshima is out on Blu-Ray on 13th July in the UK, released by Arrow Academy. The picture quality isn’t great. There’s quite a lot of damage on the print, though the image is crisp. The audio isn’t perfect either, with a few minor issues. For such a forgotten film it’s probably about as good as you’ll get though.
There are a few special features included:
– High Definition Blu-ray (1080p) presentation
– Original uncompressed audio
– Archive interview with actress Yumeji Tsukioka
– Hiroshima Nagasaki Download (2011), 73-minute documentary featuring interviews with survivors of the Hiroshima and Nagasaki atomic bombings now residing in the United States, with an introduction by the director Shinpei Takeda
– New video essay by Jasper Sharp
– Newly commissioned artwork by Scott Saslow
– FIRST PRESSING ONLY: Collector’s booklet featuring new writing on the film by Mick Broderick
The inclusion of Hiroshima Nagasaki Download is a nice move by Arrow. It’s a feature-length documentary that follows a young Japanese director and his friend as they drive from Canada to Mexico, interviewing survivors of Hiroshima and Nagasaki on the way. It’s not a perfect film. It has a slightly studenty feel to its presentation, though this is largely down to the ugly, low-tech SD digital footage. I also felt it had too much of a focus on the filmmakers than the interviewees, who had much more to say. However, the reflective road trip approach to the subject made for a unique, moving and thought-provoking film. It sits nicely aside Hiroshima, looking back at the events from a greater distance but still maintaining a personal viewpoint rather than purely a political or historical one.
Jasper Sharp’s essay provides a fascinating whistle-stop tour of how the Japanese film industry reacted to and portrayed the events of Hiroshima and Nagasaki.
The Yumeji Tsukioka interview is quite short but welcome. She describes how she fought to be allowed to work outside of her studio contract to work on the film as she had a personal connection, being from Hiroshima originally. It’s also interesting to hear how, after being in the film, she was denied access to some events, particularly those run by the US army or government.
I didn’t get a copy of the booklet to comment on that.