TV

Time Is Standing Still: White Light/Black Rain

Images courtesy HBO and NHK, the Japanese Public Television Network.

HBO's new Hiroshima and Nagasaki documentary is at once simple and infinitely complex. The atomic bombs were disasters both man-made and calculated.


White Light/Black Rain

Airtime: 8:30pm ET
Cast: Sakue Shimohira, Kiyoko Imori, Shigeko Sasamori, Keiji Nakazawa, Shuntaro Hida, Etsuko Nagano, Morris Jeppson, Lawrence Johnston
MPAA rating: N/A
Subtitle: The Destruction of Hiroshima and Nagasaki
Network: HBO
US release date: 2007-08-06
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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.

And yet.

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.

8

In Americana music the present is female. Two-thirds of our year-end list is comprised of albums by women. Here, then, are the women (and a few men) who represented the best in Americana in 2017.

If a single moment best illustrates the current divide between Americana music and mainstream country music, it was Sturgill Simpson busking in the street outside the CMA Awards in Nashville. While Simpson played his guitar and sang in a sort of renegade-outsider protest, Garth Brooks was onstage lip-syncindg his way to Entertainer of the Year. Americana music is, of course, a sprawling range of roots genres that incorporates traditional aspects of country, blues, soul, bluegrass, etc., but often represents an amalgamation or reconstitution of those styles. But one common aspect of the music that Simpson appeared to be championing during his bit of street theater is the independence, artistic purity, and authenticity at the heart of Americana music. Clearly, that spirit is alive and well in the hundreds of releases each year that could be filed under Americana's vast umbrella.

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Features

The Best Country Music of 2017

still from Midland "Drinkin' Problem" video

There are many fine country musicians making music that is relevant and affecting in these troubled times. Here are ten of our favorites.

Year to year, country music as a genre sometimes seems to roll on without paying that much attention to what's going on in the world (with the exception of bro-country singers trying to adopt the latest hip-hop slang). That can feel like a problem in a year when 58 people are killed and 546 are injured by gun violence at a country-music concert – a public-relations issue for a genre that sees many of its stars outright celebrating the NRA. Then again, these days mainstream country stars don't seem to do all that well when they try to pivot quickly to comment on current events – take Keith Urban's muddled-at-best 2017 single "Female", as but one easy example.

Nonetheless, there are many fine country musicians making music that is relevant and affecting in these troubled times. There are singers tackling deep, universal matters of the heart and mind. Artists continuing to mess around with a genre that can sometimes seem fixed, but never really is. Musicians and singers have been experimenting within the genre forever, and continue to. As Charlie Worsham sings, "let's try something new / for old time's sake." - Dave Heaton

10. Lillie Mae – Forever and Then Some (Third Man)

The first two songs on Lillie Mae's debut album are titled "Over the Hill and Through the Woods" and "Honky Tonks and Taverns". The music splits the difference between those settings, or rather bears the marks of both. Growing up in a musical family, playing fiddle in a sibling bluegrass act that once had a country radio hit, Lillie Mae roots her songs in musical traditions without relying on them as a gimmick or costume. The music feels both in touch with the past and very current. Her voice and perspective shine, carrying a singular sort of deep melancholy. This is sad, beautiful music that captures the points of view of people carrying weighty burdens and trying to find home. - Dave Heaton



9. Sunny Sweeney – Trophy (Aunt Daddy)

Sunny Sweeney is on her fourth album; each one has felt like it didn't get the attention it deserved. She's a careful singer and has a capacity for combining humor and likability with old-fashioned portrayal of deep sadness. Beginning in a bar and ending at a cemetery, Trophy projects deep sorrow more thoroughly than her past releases, as good as they were. In between, there are pills, bad ideas, heartbreak, and a clever, true-tearjerker ballad voicing a woman's longing to have children. -- Dave Heaton



8. Kip Moore – Slowheart (MCA Nashville)

The bro-country label never sat easy with Kip Moore. The man who gave us "Somethin' 'Bout a Truck" has spent the last few years trying to distance himself from the beer and tailgate crowd. Mission accomplished on the outstanding Slowheart, an album stuffed with perfectly produced hooks packaged in smoldering, synthy Risky Business guitars and a rugged vocal rasp that sheds most of the drawl from his delivery. Moore sounds determined to help redefine contemporary country music with hard nods toward both classic rock history and contemporary pop flavors. With its swirling guitar textures, meticulously catchy songcraft, and Moore's career-best performances (see the spare album-closing "Guitar Man"), Slowheart raises the bar for every would-be bro out there. -- Steve Leftridge



7. Chris Stapleton – From a Room: Volume 1 (Mercury Nashville)

If Chris Stapleton didn't really exist, we would have to invent him—a burly country singer with hair down to his nipples and a chainsaw of a soul-slinging voice who writes terrific throwback outlaw-indebted country songs and who wholesale rejects modern country trends. Stapleton's recent rise to festival headliner status is one of the biggest country music surprises in recent years, but his fans were relieved this year that his success didn't find him straying from his traditional wheelhouse. The first installment of From a Room once again finds Stapleton singing the hell out of his sturdy original songs. A Willie Nelson cover is not unwelcome either, as he unearths a semi-obscure one. The rest is made up of first-rate tales of commonality: Whether he's singing about hard-hurtin' breakups or resorting to smoking them stems, we've all been there. -- Steve Leftridge



6. Carly Pearce – Every Little Thing (Big Machine)

Many of the exciting young emerging artists in country music these days are women, yet the industry on the whole is still unwelcoming and unforgiving towards them. Look at who's getting the most radio play, for one. Carly Pearce had a radio hit with "Every Little Thing", a heartbreaking ballad about moments in time that in its pace itself tries to stop time. Every Little Thing the album is the sort of debut that deserves full attention. From start to finish it's a thoroughly riveting, rewarding work by a singer with presence and personality. There's a lot of humor, lust, blues, betrayal, beauty and sentimentality, in proper proportions. One of the best songs is a call for a lover to make her "feel something", even if it's anger or hatred. Indeed, the album doesn't shy away from a variety of emotions. Even when she treads into common tropes of mainstream country love songs, there's room for revelations and surprises. – Dave Heaton

From genre-busting electronic music to new highs in the ever-evolving R&B scene, from hip-hop and Americana to rock and pop, 2017's music scenes bestowed an embarrassment of riches upon us.


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White Hills epic '80s callback Stop Mute Defeat is a determined march against encroaching imperial darkness; their eyes boring into the shadows for danger but they're aware that blinding lights can kill and distort truth. From "Overlord's" dark stomp casting nets for totalitarian warnings to "Attack Mode", which roars in with the tribal certainty that we can survive the madness if we keep our wits, the record is a true and timely win for Dave W. and Ego Sensation. Martin Bisi and the poster band's mysterious but relevant cool make a great team and deliver one of their least psych yet most mind destroying records to date. Much like the first time you heard Joy Division or early Pigface, for example, you'll experience being startled at first before becoming addicted to the band's unique microcosm of dystopia that is simultaneously corrupting and seducing your ears. - Morgan Y. Evans

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8

Which is the draw, the art or the artist? Critic Rachel Corbett examines the intertwined lives of two artists of two different generations and nationalities who worked in two starkly different media.

Artist biographies written for a popular audience necessarily involve compromise. On the one hand, we are only interested in the lives of artists because we are intrigued, engaged, and moved by their work. The confrontation with a work of art is an uncanny experience. We are drawn to, enraptured and entranced by, absorbed in the contemplation of an object. Even the performative arts (music, theater, dance) have an objective quality to them. In watching a play, we are not simply watching people do things; we are attending to the play as a thing that is more than the collection of actions performed. The play seems to have an existence beyond the human endeavor that instantiates it. It is simultaneously more and less than human: more because it's superordinate to human action and less because it's a mere object, lacking the evident subjectivity we prize in the human being.

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