Cinematic Exploration: Whispers from the Ashes: Four Films About Hiroshima

Though cinema can be a fantastic way to travel to other worlds and experience joy, it's also one of the best ways to experience sadness and empathy. Although it is impossible to feel the depths of loss and pain of the victims of Hiroshima, with films we can gain some sort of understanding and context through the lens of the filmmaker. This is where these stories can finally be told and how they also serve as reminders of a time that we wish to no longer return to.

Hiroshima (1953)

Hideo Sekigawa's film Hiroshima (1953) is a straightforward and clinical look at the bombing and its aftereffects but no less harrowing or emotional. The film starts several years after the bombing, in a school classroom. The bombing is still a fresh horror, but some semblance of normal life has returned. However, many of the children are stricken with the effects of radiation sickness (or burn scars) and are ostracized as a result. Initially, doctors and specialists were not aware of the dangers and long lasting effects of radiation poisoning and were not equipped to treat it. The Japanese government was also slow in acknowledging the magnitude of the problem and citizens who tried to get help were seen as whiners or detriments to society.

Next, the time period shifts to Hiroshima right before the bomb is dropped. We get to see everyone going about their day-to-day lives. When the bomb hit, there was no air-raid siren so everyone was completely blindsided by it. The atomic payload is dropped and suddenly the idyllic area is turned into a literal hellscape. Buildings are blown down, fires are raging everywhere, people are horrifically burned and nobody has any idea what is going on. It's absolutely heart wrenching to watch this destruction of human life. To see the lines of burned wraiths walking slowly out of the city, hands outstretched in front of them trying to escape an incomprehensible horror. One of the most poignant scenes is a teacher, herself badly injured, leading her children to a river (which unbeknownst to her is filled with radiation) to slake their thirst and cool their wounds. As they slowly wade into the river they all die, their bodies carried away by the streaming water like so much debris. All this death...for what?!

Akira Ifukube composed the music one year before his iconic score for Godzilla (1954) and it is haunting--a funeral dirge for the senseless loss of life. This is one of those films that everyone should see so that we can perhaps prevent something like this from ever happening again.

Hiroshima Mon Amour (1959)

This film is quite a different take on the tragedy as it focuses more on individual internalization of the events of Hiroshima as opposed to its outward influence. Hiroshima Mon Amour (1959) is a French New Wave film that is comprised almost entirely of a heartfelt conversation (or more than one, it's not made clear) between a Japanese architect (Eiji Okada) and a French actress (Emmanuelle Riva) who are intertwined in a passionate but short-lived romance. The two discuss (between sessions of lovemaking) what the events of Hiroshima mean to them personally and how they remember them.

The idea that memory is fallible is one of the main themes of this film as the woman is constantly being interrupted by her lover's insistence that she is recalling things incorrectly. These two have had vastly opposite experiences with war, love, and loss yet each of them are aching and desperate to make the other understand before they have to part ways. While the pain that was suffered by the Japanese during the bombing is vast and unfathomable, the actress tries to contextualize this sorrow with events from her past life in France, in particular a public shaming she endured from the small village she lived in. Perhaps this can be seen as self-centered, but the entire point of empathy is to find common ground and this is how she attempts to do so.

Surrounding this conversation are mesmerizing and exquisite shots of both Japan and France which are juxtaposed against harrowing footage of bombing victims and destroyed countryside. Is it wrong for two people to find respite in each other in times of horror? Are memories enough to prevent a similar tragedy, even as they slowly fade in the annals of time? Hiroshima Mon Amour doesn't attempt to answer these questions so much as delicately pose them and let the audience decide.

Barefoot Gen (1983)

While anime is certainly no stranger to post-apocalyptic universes most of them are more on the fantastical side of things. Barefoot Gen (1983) is a realistic representation of the 1945 bombing of Hiroshima in Japan. It is well-known that most of the films and literature in Japan has at least been affected slightly by this event with the Godzilla films being one of the most direct pop-culture parallels to the tragedy. Barefoot Gen is based on the manga of the same name by Keiji Nakazawa and keeps the simplistic character designs (that are quite reminiscent of Disney).

The story follows a young boy named Gen as he goes about his normal routine on the fateful day of the bombing. While the look of the film is cutesy, once the bomb hits it turns into a disturbing horror film. The sequence that occurs right after the atomic bomb hits is one of the most disturbing pieces of animation I have ever seen. Watching people burst into flame while their eyeballs melt out of their skulls is not pleasant viewing. The film goes on to show the trials and tribulations that Gen encounters as he tries to live in the aftermath of the destruction. The simplistic character designs helps solidify the children's point-of-view with them not being able to process the more subtle aspects of their situation. It's basically life or death to them, they have no need for the political ideology underneath it.

Hellfire: A Journey from Hiroshima (1985)

Toshi and Iri Maruki are a elderly married artist couple based in Japan who spent the better part of their lives painting atrocities. They collaborate on their art with Iri specializing in traditional ink and Toshi focusing on oil painting. When Hiro and Iri first learned of the bombing in Hiroshima they were a young couple and they traveled there to help out the populous as best they could. The suffering and horror they witnessed during that time inspired them to create giant morbid murals that depicted the pain that was experienced by the Japanese.

What is interesting about this documentary is the idea the once you start examining the travesties that humans perpetrate on each other you start to spiral down a never ending abyss of hurt. After their Hiroshima mural gained international acclaim, the Marukis set their sights on other tragedies: The Rape of Nanking, The Holocaust, and an incident where Japanese business men dumped mercury into a river poisoning many civilians. At the time of filming, they were putting the finishing touches on a piece about Hell, one that is inhabited by many world leaders and reprehensible historical figures. Toshi remarks "Most of those who are considered the heroes of history are in hell." She pauses for a moment. "Also, we are in hell too."

--Michelle Kisner