HIROSHIMA. Japan, 1953. A Japan Teacher’s Union Production in association with General Council of Trade Unions of Japan, Hiroshima City, Children of the Atomic Bomb Friends Society, Hiroshima Electric Railway, Fujita-Gumi. Aspect ratio 1.37.1. 1 hour 44 minutes. Director: Sekigawa Hideo. Screenwriter: Yagi Yasutarō. Producers: Itō Takerō, Kikuchi Takeo. Based on a nonfiction book Children of the Atomic Bomb: Testament of the Boys and Girls of Hiroshima, compiled and edited by Osada Arata. Art Direction: Hirakawa Tōtetsu, Eguchi Junji. Cinematography: Nakano Shun’ichirō, Urashima Susumu. Editor: Kōno Akikazu. Music: Ifukube Akira.
CAST: Okada Eiji (Kitagawa), Tsukioka Yumeji (Yonehara), Yamada Isuzu (Oniwa Mine), Katō Yoshi (Endo Hideo), Tsukida Masaya (Endo Yukio), Machida Isako (Omine Michiko), Kanda Noboru (Senda), Kawarazaki Shizue (Endo Yoshiko), Shin Kinzō (Scientist), Susukida Kenji (Dr. Nishina Yoshio).
One of the major home video rediscoveries of 2020, Hiroshima is a nearly forgotten masterpiece likely to appeal to the English-speaking instructors looking for a thought-provoking, non-sensationalistic feature film to be used in a modern Japanese history class. Made only seven years after the bombing and Japan’s unconditional surrender, Hiroshima is politically and historically aware but never stringently polemical. It is clearly critical of the possible racist motivation behind the use of thermonuclear device on Japanese civilian population (as opposed to Germans), the Cold War dynamics that threatened (at the time) to bring back wartime behaviors and ideas under the pretext of fighting Communism, and the callous ways in which Americans make gawking tourist spectacles out of the hellish experience through “black tours,” but it is equally angry at wartime Japanese authorities, their incompetence, fanaticism and inability to acknowledge a truth.
The core of the film is a collection of first-hand testaments from children survivors of the atomic bombing published in 1951. This was compiled and edited by a noted scholar of education studies, Osada Arata, professor at Hiroshima University, long-time promoter of Pestalozzi’s educational philosophy in Japan and himself a victim of atomic bombing (hibakusha). Osada’s nonfiction book, despite the press code imposed by the Allied Powers Occupation authorities, became widely known and read. In 1952, one of the best-known transwar Japanese filmmakers, Shindō Kaneto, loosely adapted the book into Child of the Atomic Bomb (Genbaku no ko). However, the original participant in the project, Japan Teacher’s Union, decided that Shindō’s film “deviated too much” from the realities of the Hiroshima experience. They eventually commissioned a separate film, with a new screenplay by Yagi Yasutarō (a controversial figure who had been a major player at the notorious Manchurian Motion Picture Association during wartime and yet after the war wrote pro-labor and “enlightenment” films for such directors as Yamamoto Satsuo and Imai Tadashi) and the directorial helm entrusted to Sekigawa Hideo, a wartime Toho veteran who turned independent post-war and subsequently made a series of socially conscious and/or labor-friendly films such as Mixed-Blood Children (1953) and Mad Banquet (1954) as well as documentaries such as The New Beijing (1957).
What is distinctive about Hiroshima is that the film, like Imamura Shohei’s Black Rain (1989) based on Ibuse Masuji’s novel, pays a great deal of attention to the lives and events surrounding the bombing itself. The film starts with a group of high school students listening to a radio broadcast that narrates what might have gone through the minds of American pilots flying Enola Gay. Michiko, one of the bomb victims (the teacher, Kitagawa, identifies fully one third of his class as hibakusha ), faints, bleeding from her nose. Sekigawa and his production team anecdotally introduce other main personages in the first third, then moves back toward the fateful August day that unfolded a living hell for them— most of the adult cast members perishing in the inferno or succumbing to radiation-poisoned slow death in the aftermath— and forward again to describe in greater detail how the children, now teenagers, cope with their lives in the immediate postwar Japanese society.
Unlike Shindō’s Children of the Atomic Bomb, Hiroshima does not focus on a particular individual, and instead chooses to present a set of interwoven narratives that convey a great sense of historical authenticity, due to extensive usage of archival footages as well as appearances of real-life Hiroshima victims as various characters (At one point, a man takes off his shirt and shows his now-healed burn scars throughout his arms and backside, clearly not a product of special effects make-up). There is an uncommon level of vividness and realism in the wartime details, displaying elementary school children taking part in all kinds of hard labor as “volunteers,” demolishing an old house, for instance. The same goes for the rubbles and dusty roads of incompletely reconstructed post-1945 Hiroshima, depictions of war orphans practicing how to shout “Hungry, Hungry!” to the US “Hellos (Harō-san),” and a boy dedicating a bar of Hershey chocolate and a pack of Lucky Strike to a mini-shrine built for his lost sister.
Hiroshima is obviously not a big studio production (such as Toho-backed Gojira) yet production quality is high, almost astounding in its scale and detail. One gets a strong sense of Hiroshima as a robust, medium-sized city with tramcars, trucks and bicycles bustling up and down the streets. When the bomb hits, burn makeup and torn clothes on the victims appear frighteningly realistic. The sequence in which wounded schoolchildren, led by their teachers, huddle together in the river, surrounded by towering flames, singing schoolbook songs, only to one by one sink into the waters full of dead bodies already, is in particular emotionally devastating, but it is never distracted by inappropriate insertions of gallows humor or attention-calling avant-garde techniques that end up aestheticizing indescribable suffering.
Likewise, absence of overwrought melodrama enhances the affective power of certain scenes, as in the elder Endō’s (Katō Yoshi) retrieval of his son and the latter’s schoolmate at a refuge shelter. The politeness, care and almost serene sorrow with which the two survivors exchange their information, thanks and farewell with one another, have the power to convince viewers like us that this particular encounter must have happened in real life. Sekigawa’s direction is not minimalistic but unobtrusively effective, becoming lyrical and expressionist only when it needs to be: during the sequence in which Japanese scientists try to convey the off-scale nightmare that the Hiroshima bomb represents to a bunch of pig-headed military commanders, a scientist dejectedly looks up at a fluttering moth trapped behind a window.
You can tell that some of the actors are amateurs: nonetheless, they seamlessly blend into the film, much in the way Italian non-actors do in the neorealist classics of De Sica and Rossellini. The marquee names are occupied by the established stars such as Okada, Tsukioka and Yamada playing adult characters, but real protagonists of the film are teenage survivors, especially Michiko and Endo’s son Yukio. The latter’s character trajectory, although only one of the many threads woven into a tapestry that is Hiroshima, is for me the most interesting. Played by a darkly handsome young actor Tsukida Masaya, who apparently attempted to commit suicide in early 1960s and published a tell-all confessional of his misadventures in 1965, Yukio leads a gang of “Hungry” kids, flirts with juvenile delinquency and befriends a hibakusha girl, who attempts to discourage his half-hearted attempt at romance, already close to accepting her permanent pariah status as a living, disabled reminder of the apocalyptic war.
The resolution of Yukio’s story involves a black-market sale of the skulls of Hiroshima victims as souvenirs that in fact might be the most shocking element of this film to the contemporary viewer’s sensibilities. I myself was greatly impressed by the way Sekigawa uses this seeming attack on the dignity of deceased victims to in fact let Yukio assume the role of a messenger bearing a warning against the return of wartime values and attitudes to postwar Japan.
Hiroshima , despite the censorship problems it encountered upon its release, deftly avoids being dragged down by position speeches or attempts to clobber the viewers with infernal, blood-and-guts ordeals of the bomb victims. Seen today, it has the added value of contextualizing its depiction of the atomic bombings in the thoroughly believable, realistic depictions of wartime and immediate postwar life experiences, a boon to teachers of history who would rather not divorce the atomic bombings from their specific historical context and turn them into a subject of existential-philosophical inquiry, as I feel, for instance, Alain Renais’ Hiroshima mon Amour (1959) does (I by no means wish to claim that such a cinematic approach is wrong-headed or worthless: it just is not as helpful for a historian of modern Japan as an educational text).
Can It Be Used in Class?: You bet your Hershey’s it can! I would argue that it surpasses Gojira (1954) and Black Rain, two other major works of Japanese cinema dealing with the country’s nuclear trauma, in terms of its utility as a text to be explored for historical lessons, for the reasons I have cited above. It will make an excellent companion piece to the reading materials dealing with the Japanese life under the Pacific War, Japan’s unconditional surrender, and the immediate aftermath of the war under the Allied Occupation.
There are mountainous volumes of critical studies of the literature and cultural expressions of the atomic bomb experiences in English language: the revised edition of Mick Broderick’s Hibakusha Cinema remains a useful reference work for motion pictures specifically dealing with atomic bombings. The film might be pared with Nakazawa Keiji’s Barefoot Gen series, which explores similar grounds of first-hand experiences of the trauma of the bombing.
Arrow Academy’s Blu Ray presentation of this nearly forgotten Japanese film made sixty-seven years ago is as good as one could possibly expect. Except for the battered title sequence and occasional dips in quality whenever archival footage is inserted, the movie is extremely clean, with excellent contrast levels and enhanced clarity. Monoaural soundtrack is also rendered fine: particularly impressive is Ifukube Akira’s beautiful and elegiac score, in parts majestically recalling music for Hollywood religious epics, but at other times unmistakably coming from the same composer responsible for musically illustrating the devastation wrought by Godzilla in his first cinematic appearance in 1954.
The supplements include a 73-minute documentary Hiroshima Nagasaki Download (2011), directed by Takeda Shinpei, consisting of interviews with eighteen survivors of Hiroshima and Nagasaki bombings residing in the North American Pacific coastal regions, Hiroshima, Cinema and Japan’s Nuclear Imagination , a video essay by critic Jasper Sharp, and an archival interview with the actress Tsukioka Yumeji, a fascinating talk that covers, among other topics, her postwar visit to Korea and being recognized by older female fans there and being apprenticed in a US studio in 1951-1952 contributing to her decision to participate in a “meaningful” project such as Hiroshima. The interview is unfortunately only available in murky SD quality.
The package also comes with a 35-page booklet that includes a very informative historical essay by Mick Broderick focusing on the production and reception of Hiroshima, and another essay by Jasper Sharp discussing the directorial career of Sekigawa Hideo. Sharp’s piece draws key information about the circumstances surrounding Sekigawa’s departure from Toho from Hirano Kyoko’s Mr. Smith Goes to Tokyo, which an interested party should check out.
Arrow Video’s release of Hiroshima, along with their recent releases of Uchida Tomu’s films, deserves much praise as a huge contribution to the enrichment of the roster of accessible classical-age Japanese cinema. It is highly recommended to all instructors of modern Japanese history in English language.
Mick Broderick, ed. Hiroshima, Nagasaki and the Nuclear Image in Japanese Film (Routledge, 2013, originally Routlege, Kegan & Paul, 1996).
Hirano Kyoko, Mr. Smith Goes to Tokyo: Japanese Cinema under the American Occupation, 1945-1952 (Smithsonian Books, 1994).
Nakazawa Keiji, Barefoot Gen, 3 vols (Last Gasp, 2004-2005).