By Jeremy Carr.
A key aspect of Sekigawa’s 1953 docu-drama concerns the related discrimination leveled against victims (of leukemia, the “A-bomb disease”), based largely on ignorance and misinformation, but on a broader level, the film also focuses on the wide-ranging scars left etched upon the Japanese populace.”
Hideo Sekigawa’s Hiroshima opens in a classroom, as students and a teacher, Kitagawa (Eiji Okada), listen to a radio broadcast detailing the procedural chronology of the United States’ August 6, 1945 detonation of a nuclear bomb over the titular Japanese city. Hiroshima, the report states, “would instantly become a city of corpses.” Overcome with emotion, one young girl yells out: “Stop it! Stop it!” Her nose begins to bleed. She is revealed to be one of the many who suffer from leukemia, the “A-bomb disease.” In fact, one-third of the class is likewise afflicted. A key aspect of Sekigawa’s 1953 docu-drama (now available on Arrow Video) concerns the related discrimination leveled against such victims, based largely on ignorance and misinformation, but on a broader level, the film also focuses on the wide-ranging scars left etched upon the Japanese populace. Mentally, physically, and culturally, the effects of this tragedy were immediate and lingered for years and decades to come.
Following the opening at the school, Sekigawa’s film swiftly provides a panorama of how factions of the population deal with the adverse consequences of the bombing, with many feeling a sense of shame, disappointment, or exploitation. It’s an essentially isolated distillation of varying people in critical junctures of delinquency and desperation, as a nation itself copes with the catastrophe through symbolic peace monuments and melancholic nostalgia. A subtle flashback then initiates what is undoubtably Hiroshima’s dominant sequence, and by far its most harrowing. Just before the bombing, there are glimpses of sedate, everyday banality. But then it happens: the “flash-bang” that disastrously upends the lives of all involved and escalates Hiroshima into a terrifying, gut-wrenching torrent of devastation. Combining documentary footage and staged recreations, Sekigawa presents a furnace of confusion, anguish, and overwhelming misery. It would be almost unbearable if it weren’t so absolutely crucial to realize. The hellscape is littered with ravaged bodies and buildings in ruin, forming abstract images of mangled limbs and structures, a fragmentary portrait of flames, destruction, tattered clothes, and bloodshed. The victims call out for loved ones, coworkers, and classmates, for anyone who has survived.
With a somber, compelling score by Akira Ifukube, who would later compose the music for 1954’s nuclear-themed Godzilla, the scenes of desolation are effectively potent, as Sekigawa depicts such emotionally charged moments as students clustered together singing school songs in a dire attempt to assume some semblance of normalcy. Hiroshima also shows the remnants and hesitant resurgence of Japan’s nationalistic endurance, with decidedly mixed results. One young boy begins espousing phrases of patriotic loyalty, but another child cuts him short: “What good is that?” It’s a precarious situation, an obvious turning point. There remains the enemy to combat and the war is still ongoing, and in the days that follow, governmental officials endeavor to maintain the spirit of impending victory while also controlling the dissemination of information, anything to reduce the chaos and insecurity.
Certainly, there is a degree of anti-American sentiment here, an understandable hostility and resentment, but Sekigawa is equally condemnatory of the Japanese response, from the authorities who manipulate the public perception of the attack to the industries adamantly continuing with the production of war materials. Both avenues of potential criticism are relatively restrained, however, and Hiroshima was well received when it was released. To those initial audiences, one can easily see why these bureaucratic digressions were less impactful than the film’s grueling centerpiece. But there were many involved with the production and its distribution who were conflicted by not only Hiroshima’s graphic nature but also its political repercussions.
Much of this contention is detailed in a 30-minute video essay by Japanese film scholar Jasper Sharp, included on the Arrow Academy release of Hiroshima. Titled Hiroshima, Cinema, and Japan’s Nuclear Imagination, the supplement covers Hiroshima’s complicated backstory, submits additional documentary content, and provides an historical overview of the bombing and its aftermath. Sharp also discusses the censorship efforts mounted against the film, the general struggle filmmakers faced in obtaining authentic material during the American occupation, and he delves into Sekigawa’s later work, exploring why this film, and certainly the rest of his output, has been so overlooked. This Sharp largely chalks up to the director’s politics and his subsequent forays into less high-brow cinematic fare. Shedding further light on what has indeed been an often-neglected film, and filmmaker, the Arrow release includes essays by Sharp and Mick Broderick and, adding heartrending context, there is a 73-minute Hiroshima Nagasaki Download, a 2011 documentary about bombing survivors living in the United States.
Hiroshima was financed by the regional teacher’s union and was based on “Genbaku no ko” (“Children of the A-Bomb: Testament of the Boys and Girls of Hiroshima”), a 1951 collection of eye-witness accounts compiled by Dr. Arata Osada, a professor at Hiroshima University. The book containing recollections of the children present on that fateful day had one year earlier been the source of inspiration for another film, Children of Hiroshima, written and directed by Kaneto Shindo, a Hiroshima native. But here, while the financing of Sekigawa’s film does suggest its edifying intent, which it surely achieves, its source material, adapted by screenwriter Yasutaro Yagi, appropriately places children as a fundamental facet of Hiroshima’s objective, and its most upsetting. Many of the children become wayward scavengers, street kids peddling macabre souvenirs while the adults struggle to recapture their lives and loves and escape to customs of diversionary entertainment. There are some famous faces in Hiroshima, including Okada, who would later appear in 1964’s Woman in the Dunes and 1959’s Hiroshima Mon Amour (which contains uncredited inserts from Hiroshima), and Isuzu Yamada, star of Kurosawa’s Yojimbo (1961) and Throne of Blood (1957). Yet far more poignant are the thousands of actual Hiroshima residents, acting as extras and reenacting the inhumanity and horror. Appearing in such a state, as staggering zombies making their way through the madness and suffering hordes of fellow citizens, they perform an astonishingly courageous feat.
Both a recognized actor and firsthand applicant, there is also Yumeji Tsukioka, who had earlier appeared in Yasujirô Ozu’s Late Spring (1949) and was another Hiroshima native. Highlighted in an interview on the Arrow disc, she states that her desire to participate in the film was a result of wanting to contribute to society and help deter “largescale wars.” “A film like Hiroshima doesn’t appear very often,” she states, so casually and yet so perceptively, saying more about the film’s true genesis than she perhaps intended. “It shouldn’t really.”
Jeremy Carr teaches film studies at Arizona State University and writes for the publications Film International, Cineaste, Senses of Cinema, MUBI/Notebook, Cinema Retro, Vague Visages, The Retro Set, The Moving Image, Diabolique Magazine and Fandor. His monograph on Roman Polanski’s Repulsion (1965) is forthcoming with Auteur Publishing, and he is a contributor to the forthcoming collections David Fincher’s Zodiac: Cinema of Investigation and (Mis)Interpretation, from Fairleigh Dickinson University Press, and ReFocus: The Films of Elaine May, from Edinburgh University Press.