Arts: Japanese Film

Breaking the Hiroshima Taboo

Even as Nobuhiro Suwa’s H Story [inspired by Alain Resnais’ 1959 film Hiroshima mon amour] appears on French movie screens, a new Japanese movie is being shot in the martyred city of Hiroshima. Directed by Yoshida and financed by the French National Film Center to the tune of 20 million francs [US$2.7 million], the film tells the story of three generations of women from the fateful day of Aug. 6, 1945, to the present.

This production is a rare occurrence because Hiroshima and Nagasaki continue to paralyze Japanese filmmakers. The unspeakable pain of the first atomic bomb, about which Japanese schoolchildren are taught from an early age, seems to stun everyone who tries to get to know Hiroshima. Even the director of H Story, a native of the city, hasn’t escaped the phenomenon. “It all started with my friend, the American filmmaker Robert Kramer (Kramer died in November 1999),” Suwa recounts. “He had a clear idea of Hiroshima, of the memory the city carries, and of what he wanted to say. With me it was different—I had nothing to say at first. Japanese people can’t see or talk about this city. It’s both too intimate and too immense.”

Kramer is gone. But the will to go on “for him,” and Suwa’s desire to retrace the steps of Hiroshima mon amour, the path-breaking film by Alain Resnais, eventually won the day: “The personality of the city as well as the ever-present nature of Resnais’ work really took over during our shoot. I had seen the film in my student days, but it didn’t mean much to me then. It was when I came into contact with the city of Hiroshima that the film’s evidence, its strength, became so impressive,” says Suwa, whose film hasn’t yet been released in Japan.

“Hiroshima mon amour is the inevitable reference” for Japanese artistic expression about Hiroshima, opines Abi Sakamoto, who was an editor for the now-defunct Japanese edition of the French film magazine Cahiers du cinéma. “You couldn’t say that the film is among the best known French feature films. Resnais himself is less famous here than [Jean-Luc] Godard or [Jacques] Rivette. But for movie fans in Japan, Resnais’ name is forever linked with that of this murdered city.” For Alain Resnais was able to express what is so hard for the Japanese to talk about: this never-healed wound, this absence of everything that makes Resnais’ Japanese actor say to his French lover: “You’ve seen nothing in Hiroshima.”

“The magic of this film is that of an external observer,” Suwa believes. “The tragedy can be seen and understood only through foreign eyes. In Hiroshima mon amour, the dialogue between a Japanese man and a French woman illuminates everything. From the very beginning, I knew that my film had to be structured this same way: as a conversation between two ways of seeing, as an intimate relationship between the city and two beings who have a different vision of it.”

In the face of problems like these, as well as a general lack of understanding of the nuclear tragedy, few Japanese directors have dared attack the subject. Shohei Imamura made Black Rain, about a Hiroshima family trying to separate themselves from a niece who was exposed to radiation in the explosion. Akira Kurosawa told the story of Nagasaki, Japan’s other martyred city, in Rhapsody in August. In this film, Richard Gere plays—rather shallowly—a Japanese-American who comes back to apologize for the nuclear attack.

For the Japanese public, Hiroshima is mainly a backdrop for a television series, or a subject for documentaries. The Americans exorcised the disaster at Pearl Harbor through a Hollywood super-production of the same name, which is still occupying movie screens in Tokyo. The Japanese, though, are hardput when it comes to Hiroshima: “People will talk about the Godzilla series (Godzilla being a giant lizard born of the atomic explosion), or the “Barefoot Gen” comics by Keiji Nakazawa (semiautobiographical best sellers about a family driven from their home by the explosion),” says Nobuhiko Ono, owner of a video rental shop in north Tokyo. “But for Japanese creators, Hiroshima is a dead city.”

Why does silence reign over Hiroshima? “It’s not fair to talk of silence,” objects Abi Sakamoto, “because the documentary director Iwasaki filmed the scene in 1945. It’s the full-length, fictional feature film that creates problems.” Arnaud Duquesne, a French student who is writing his thesis on the Japanese film industry, says the amnesia results from Japan’s difficulty with introspection and the country’s still-painful memories: “To deal with Hiroshima, the Japanese must ask questions about the war and its origins, and thus about the Japanese roots of the conflict.” Kurosawa, who released Rhapsody in August in 1991, almost 50 years after Pearl Harbor, was subjected to intense criticism. The Western press accused him of dealing only with Japan’s pain, of turning Japan into a victim—which made Kurosawa furious.

It’s too much, then, to suggest that Japan’s filmmakers have forgotten Hiroshima. Resnais and Hiroshima itself are part of Japan’s cinematographic memory. Will Yoshida’s film open the way to fictional treatments of the city? “I hope people are ready now,” says Abi Sakamoto. “Maybe we don’t need to hide Hiroshima any longer.” In 1961, when Resnais’ film appeared in Japan, it was rebaptized for the local market. Presented as a love story, the film bore the title A 24-Hour Affair.