Sunday, March 02, 2008

White Light, Black Rain

On August 6th and 9th, 1945, two atomic bombs vaporized 210,000 people in Hiroshima and Nagasaki. Those who survived are called "hibakusha"--people exposed to the bomb--and there are an estimated 200,000 living today.

Oh, the Humanity!

Last night I took a break from watching the G4 channel's "Duty Free TV" programming block - which routinely makes fun of "those wacky Japanese" via MST 3000-style commercial spoofs in between episodes of Japanese TV shows like Ninja Warrior, Unbeatable Bazuke, and Super Fun Product Show - and watched a documentary about the American atomic bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki in August of 1945. Yes - quite the mood swing!

It was a 2007 HBO documentary by Steven Okazaki called White Light, Black Rain: The Destruction of Hiroshima and Nagasaki and it may be the best film ever made about the event Japanese survivors call "pica don" ("pica" referred to the flash of light, and "don" was an onomatopoeic reference to the tremendous sound) because it largely glosses over the scientific, military, and political background that has been done to death on countless History Channel programs, concentrating instead on the survivors and their stories. Add to this some horrible and disturbing archival film footage/photographs that had previously been suppressed for over 25 years and the survivors' own paintings and drawings and, whatever your stance is on Hiroshima and Nagasaki, I really think it will change the way you look at the bomb. I think you'll agree with me that regardless of whether justified militarily or politically, morally these bombings were a crime against humanity. Human beings should not do this to fellow human beings.

As one post-war Japanese-born IMDb commentator(lastliberal from Florida) put it:
To see your mother crumble to dust in front of you is a pain that is incomprehensible. It is so horrific that some children could not take it and ended their lives. To see children with horrific burns all over their bodies, in excruciating pain for many months, with no relief and wanting to die will touch the hardest hearts.

As director Okazaki explained, "With WHITE LIGHT/BLACK RAIN, I wanted to tell one of the great human stories of one of history’s monumental tragedies. The personal memories of the survivors are amazing, shocking and inspiring. They put a human face on the incalculable destruction caused by nuclear war."

Okazaki met more than 500 survivors and interviewed more than 100 people before choosing the 14 subjects featured in the film (many of whom had never spoken publicly about their experiences), as well as four Americans (scientists and military personnel) involved in the bombings.

In one amazing scene, Enola Gay co-pilot Capt. Robert Lewis appears on a 1955 episode of This Is Your Life and apologizes to featured guest Kiyoshi Tanimoto, a Japanese minister who survived Hiroshima. He repeats the words he wrote down in his log immediately after witnessing the blast: "My God, what have we done?"

But I was most impressed by survivor Kiyoko Imori who lost her entire family - including a sister who survived but later threw herself in front of a speeding train because she could not go on with her disfigurement - when she said there are two types of courage: "The first is the courage to die, which my sister had. The other is the courage to live, which I chose because I didn't have the courage to die."

Dying is easy, many survivors said, and some prayed for it often in the immediate aftermath of the bombings when they were undergoing treatment and, later, dehumanizing examinations by American doctors and scientists. Death was seen as more honorable than living and not being treated as human in Japan, where survivors are an unwelcome reminder of a past the Japanese government (which only recently started offering medical assistance to the hibakusha) would rather forget. Plus many survivors felt guilty that they lived while their friends, neighbors and loved ones perished. Survivors were and are discriminated against socially and in terms of employment, with the same phobias and misconceptions we have today against HIV-positive people - not to mention employers not wanting to inherit the considerable medical risks insuring survivors would entail (especially since the government didn't recognize their rights). And women survivors had trouble finding mates because they were either barren or it was believed that they would give birth to deformed children - a subject covered extensively (and painfully) in Shohei Imamura's award-winning 1989 feature film Korei Ame (Black Rain). Imamura's Black Rain - curiously out-of-print (given that it won so many international film awards) - should not be confused with Ridley Scott's Black Rain, which also came out in 1989 (how's that for timing?).

The most famous survivor interviewed in White Light, Black Rain is Keiji Nakazawa, best known as the author of the autobiographical manga series Hadashi no Gen (Barefoot Gen), which he started serializing in 1973. Nakazawa was six years old at the time and lost most of his family in the bombing; he credits his survival with a brick wall collapsing on top of him during the blast. In addition to the manga series, two animated features, three live-action films and an opera have been based on Barefoot Gen.

And speaking of other versions of the Hiroshima bombing, check out these two great animated films:

(dir. Renzo Kinoshita, Japan, 1978, 10 minutes)

Pica-Don was the first attempt to discuss the Hiroshima blast by means of animation. Renzo Kinoshita says he was inspired in a heart-rending way when he saw paintings and drawings of those who survived the bomb. "Pica-Don" is an onomatopoetic word meaning thunder and lightning and referring to the bomb. Baltimore's Enoch Pratt Free Library has a 16mm print of this very hard-to-find title. I showed it last year as part of our Hiroshima film program, along with Alain Resnais' Hiroshima, Mon Amour (1959).

Grave of the Fireflies (Hotaru no Haku)
(dir. Isao Takahata, Japan, 1988, 89 minutes)

Fantastic film from Ghibli Studios. As user Charles Solomon describes it:
Isao Takahata's powerful antiwar film has been praised by critics wherever it has been screened around the world. When their mother is killed in the firebombing of Tokyo near the end of World War II, teenage Seita and his little sister Setsuko are left on their own: their father is away, serving in the Imperial Navy. The two children initially stay with an aunt, but she has little affection for them and resents the time and money they require. The two children set up housekeeping in a cave by a stream, but their meager resources are quickly exhausted, and Seita is reduced to stealing to feed his sister.

The strength of Grave of the Fireflies lies in Takahata's evenhanded portrayal of the characters. A sympathetic doctor, the greedy aunt, the disinterested cousins all know there is little they can do for Seita and Setsuko. Their resources, like their country's, are already overtaxed: anything they spare endangers their own survival. As in the Barefoot Gen films, no mention is made of Japan's role in the war as an aggressor; but the depiction of the needless suffering endured by its victims transcends national and ideological boundaries.

I haven't seen the Barefoot Gen films, but they look to be essential viewing as well.


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