Even as kids, we understood we were losing the war. Any fool could see it. We didn’t even have shoes: how could we win the war?
— Saoru Fukahori
It was a bright red circle of flame. A white cloud formed and kept expanding until it touched the ring and turned into a ball of fire.
— Dr. Shuntaro Hida
“For a very long time, I was afraid to talk about my experience.” Kiyoko Imori was just three blocks from ground zero when the atomic bomb dropped on Hiroshima. She lost her family, and was, on that terrible day in August 1945, the only survivor out of some 620 elementary school students. The devastation, says Keiji Nakazawa, was complete. Only six years old then, he recalls, “It had such a huge impact on my life. I remember every detail.” He makes these details manifest in comic books and animated films, including Barefoot Gen. Sample images show burning buildings, dreadful shadows, screaming children.
As indelible as such images might seem, at the start of Steven Okazaki’s superb White Light/Black Rain: The Destruction of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, the bombs now appear quite definitively pushed into the past. Historical newsreels make Japan seem monstrous: in 1931, “She fed on other people’s suffering,” in 1945, President Truman declared, “We shall completely destroy Japan’s power to make war.” Today, at Christmastime, “Jingle Bells” fills the air while street vendors wear Santa costumes and a punky girl band wears red blazers and face-paint, their rock music raucous on the sidewalk. This performance is intercut with interviews of young shoppers (“75% of Japan’s population was born after 1945,” reads a title), not one able to say what happened back then: “I’m bad at history,” sighs one girl.
Courtesy HBO and NHK, the Japanese Public Television Network.
When the bombs dropped on 6 and 9 August 1945, some 210,000 people were vaporized instantly, with over 160,000 dying later, of cancer, infection, and radiation sickness. Premiering on the 62nd anniversary of the bombings, the film looks back and forward (the current world arsenal of atomic weapons could repeat what happened at Hiroshima 400,000 times over), with interviews from 14 survivors (Okazaki spoke with 500) as well as four U.S. participants, including weaponeer Morris Jeppson and scientific advisor Harold Agnew. Recalling that he “did what I was told to do,” Agnew says, “I guess I wasn’t sophisticated enough to appreciate what it meant in the long run, for the future of the world.”
Not to mention the futures of individuals. Some memories are immediate and visceral (“I was buried underneath the house,” recalls one woman, and a man says, “I flew through the house”). Others sound like horror movies, almost beyond words: Katsuji Yoshida recalls seeing “people with no arms, no legs, their intestines spilling out, brains spilling out of their crushed skulls. And near ground zero, there were black, carbonized bodies, burned beyond recognition: people in unimaginable states.” “When I looked around,” says Shigeko Sasamori, “It was pitch black, then no sound. Then pretty soon, the blackness going away, like a fog goes away. Then you see sort of a gray, and moving people.”
Sasamori, 13 at the time, is physically scarred as well. One of the 25 “Hiroshima Maidens” brought to the U.S. for plastic surgery — “At no cost to them!” exults the host of This is Your Life, which celebrated Reverend Kiyoshi Tanimoto, the leader of the project, in 1955. “I cried,” Sasamori says, when she saw Tanimoto shake hands with the copilot of the Enola Gay, because she could “see that [Robert Lewis] felt bad about it.” At the same time, the host announces, the “maidens” will remain obscured, just silhouettes for TV viewers, “to avoid causing them any embarrassment.”
It’s a stunning bit of collective memory, a mix of self-delusion and compassion, public commemoration and private pain. As much as the bombs are rationalized, repeatedly, as the “only way to end the war,” Sasamori puts it in another context. “If I didn’t get the bomb, what kind of life would I have?” She imagines she would have had a family or a career. “My fantasy,” she says quietly, her damaged hand gesturing, “goes different directions.”
Even the war’s welcome end “goes different directions,” as history and as experience. Okazaki’s film makes this case quietly, but effectively, by juxtaposition. Following footage of the U.S. post-surrender celebrations (“In New York City as throughout the nation and the world,” says the newsreel narrator, “It’s total victory”), Jeppson laments, “It had worked as designed, but it does what war does, it destroys people.” And here the scene cuts to “what war does,” namely, “The Aftermath,” official U.S.-made footage, much of it not previously released. Victims appear in bloody bandages, skin peeling off, eyes and limbs missing.
The survivors in White Light/Black Rain exemplify not only the physical effects but also the lingering emotional and political consequences of the bomb. “The bomb is still with me,” says Panyeon Kim, who had six miscarriages. Katsuji Yoshida’s ear-area remains covered by a black patch, Sumiteru Taniguchi’s chest and back masses of cavities and scar tissue. “You can see my heart beating between the ribs,” he observes. “My bones are so thin and brittle, they’ll break if I cough violently.”
Some victims, the documentary notes subtly, have also been subject to discrimination. In the months following the bomb, no one understood the results of radiation. Saoru Fukahori says, “‘Pika don’ was like a dirty word for the bomb. Pika don people became untouchables.” Slightly less perceptible was the overwhelming survivors’ guilt. Sakue Shimohira, 10 years old at the time, remembers the moment she and her younger sister discovered their dead mother, her body falling crumbling into ash when they touched her. When her sister later “jumped in front a train going at full speed,” Shimohira says she tried to do the same but couldn’t. “I realized,” she says, “There are two kinds of courage, the courage to die and the courage to live.”
The American interviewees show another kind of “courage,” one or two a little maddening in their ability to stick to the party line. But if they don’t apologize for what they did, they’re respectful and articulate potential lessons. Navigator Theodore Van Kirk saw the damage firsthand. When someone says, “Oh, we should drop a nuke on Iraq,” Van Kirk observes, “Stupid jerk doesn’t even know what a nuke is. If he did, he wouldn’t say that.”
White Light/Black Rain‘s argument is at once simple and infinitely complex. Whatever courage emerged in the face of such devastation, however admirable the survivors surely are, the bombs were disasters, man-made and calculated. And that’s the tragedy, at last, that any nation or group of individuals would be able to conjure and commit such brutality, for whatever reason.