Japan, 1953

Directed by Sekigawa Hideo

With Okada Eiji (Mr. Kitagawa), Katô Yoshi (Endo Yukio)

This is not an ordinary film. In a move that had been surely unusual in the Japanese cinema it was not produced within the studios system. Funds had been gathered by a trade union, a left-leaning group of teachers precisely, and support was provided by the Hiroshima municipality.

The director who accepted to shoot their project started his career in 1936 in a studio that became later the Tôhô but after World War Two ended Sekigawa Hideo ran into trouble with the hierarchy because of his political views, far more red than could have been accepted in most Japanese businesses. It might not have difficult to him to embrace the vision of the trade union and the town, even if the task was daunting.

A poignant vision of a human disaster

The aim was to deal with the tragedy of August 1945 when the first atomic bomb ever designed was dropped on Hiroshima – shooting a film bearing witness to the horror and suffering the attack created, showing realistically what the local population had to come through and how it had to come to terms with the consequences and provoking serious thinking about both the atomic bomb and the fight for peace. The ruins of Hiroshima had already feature in a film, the 1948 masterwork of Shimizu Hiroshi, “Hachi no su no kodomotachi – Children of the Beehive”, in a surprise move as both the American administration ruling then Japan and the Japanese authorities were not keen to let the Japanese view the city as it was. To go further and to show what the bombing looked like to the people and all the consequences just seven years later as Japan and the world were busy rebuilding economies and coping with the Cold War was a truly bold move and raised a lot of questions both practical and about the reception – were folks and the national cinema really ready to face shocking pictures and sobering reflections?

Perhaps everybody was keen on forgetting or rehashing perfunctory slogans about peace and war without much consideration for the specifics of the tragedy and the victims. This is precisely the gripe of many high-school students learning English with Mr. Kitagawa in a modern-day Hiroshima school. The first part of the film quickly focuses on one of his pupils, whose weak health fast deteriorates, a plight that is signaled in a graphic, telling way, when she suddenly rises up from her desk, shouts, collapses and starts bleeding from the nose even as the class was listening to a broadcast about the 1945 bombing. From that shocking starting point, the film then examines how some of her fellow students react in the most political and passionate way, driving Kitagawa to question his own way of thinking about the Hiroshima tragedy. He soon acknowledges he and others have not make enough effort to grasp what happened and to talk about it properly – the repentant and critical message that the trade union wanted to get through obviously, and fairly enough. He gets also worried about the fate of one of his former pupil, Endo Yukio.

That personal case, dropped off amid the many talks and anecdotes of the first part, is going to be the key opening the second part, which is the most challenging and important part of Sekigawa’s film. He handles it in a very detailed and chronological way. The fateful day is depicted nearly hour by hour and the following weeks are carefully observed through the viewpoint of a group of wounded (but not only them). The immediate impact of the bombing leads to an unflinching, gritty and poignant description, the camera surveying relentlessly a city turned into ruins, where small fires burst and badly injured, blackened and shocked survivors, in small numbers alas, wander hopelessly. The effort to reconstruct the tragic scenes is, even compared to the work of Imamura Shôhei in his 1988 flick “Kuroi ame – Black Rain”, impressive, a heartbreaking and comprehensive collection of images (which were made possible by the willingness of the inhabitants of Hiroshima by the thousands to take part). The images are searing although the film gets increasingly on the verge of being too emotional with drawn-out, insisting scenes.

Among the ruins and the pains stands the case of a man who first unsuccessfully tries to save his wife and then starts to look for their children. The plight of Mr. Endo soon becomes a kind of common thread among the many incidents and portraits of the film, a desperate figure easy to recognize and to relate to, making the mayhem that is shot more navigable for the audience even as it looks sometimes like a scattered series of events with new faces to discover and old ones harder to distinguish. The man is of course the father of Yukio, whose bright face was part of the classroom featured at the start of the second part, a situation that mirrors the beginning of the first part, though with much younger students: the link between these two parts is smartly forged. After the death of his father, and the disappearance of a sister who was the only other kid of the family to have survived, Yukio becomes a more central character; he becomes a waif who gets together with other destitute, lonely, orphaned kids and makes a gang very much like the group whose antics and struggle for survival is chronicled in the movie of Shimizu. As Yukio grows up the film moves back to the present time and the final, shorter part shows he strives to make a living and come to terms with the memories of the war, eventually joining Kitagawa and crowds of people in a demonstration for peace.

Three elements surprise in that poignant and chaotic vision of the aftermath of the bomb. An unexpected scene features talks between military chiefs and two scientists; the scientists explain the bomb was really an atomic one, with dreadful consequences, and dare to suggest that the military chiefs reassess the need to keep fighting at all costs, provoking a strong rebuke; this is a remarkable instance where blame is not just laid down to the enemy but also directed at the stubborn, arrogant, merciless military who had hijacked in the early 1930s the democratic system to achieve imperialist, racial and autocratic goals. Then comes, in a bigger surprise and even bolder move, a talk between two wounded in a field hospital in Hiroshima that contains amazingly bitter and ironic comment on the Emperor – it is just a matter of a couple of sentences and minutes but to take on the supreme leader was unthinkable until then and even after the era of the time a matter of extra-caution and deep hypocrisy. And finally, there is the argument between the folks in this hospital and the chief physician about the future of the place: could they still live there? Were not they doomed or getting fooled around? Is the doctor’s hope a mistaken wish? And so everybody, including the camera, watch a patch of land where a few radishes have been planted. Would they grow and consequently demonstrate that radioactivity is weak enough to let agriculture and human life reclaim Hiroshima?

Thinking that radishes could be a matter of suspense in a film begs belief. And yet in “Hiroshima” it works. And they do grow up too, like Yukio. The ravished faces of the wounded are as moving and upsetting as grimmer images of the film: it is a cause for celebration that life can carry on unabated, that it endures and abides. And that makes the need to remember and to stand up for peace even more relevant, pressing, obvious.

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