Tuesday, January 16, 2018

Hiroshima: Lessons of the Hibakusha

Eiji Okada was from Chiba, but cineastes will be forgiven if they assumed he was from Hiroshima. He worked with auteurs like Teshigahara and Naruse, but he is best remembered for Alain Resnais’s Hiroshima Mon Amour. In Resnais’s film, he and Emmanuelle Riva were trying to forget their pasts, but six years earlier, he played a crusading school teacher working to keep the memory of the Atomic bombing fresh and vital in the Japanese public consciousness. Fresh from a critical rediscovery, Hideo Sekigawa’s Hiroshima screens this Friday at the Japan Society.

Mr. Kitagawa is new in town, so he is initially a bit insensitive to the ongoing struggles of the hibakusha survivor students. However, when one of his students nearly passes out from a nose bleed, he starts to get the picture. About one-third of his class are hibakusha and the other two-thirds are insensitive Hellions. However, he will slowly instill in the latter some empathy and historical perspective. The story of a former classmate named Endo will be particularly instructive. He and his little sister are two of the primary survivors Sekigawa follows in the extended second act flashback to the pikadon flash-boom.

Hiroshima was bankrolled by the Japanese Teacher’s Union, so its pedagogical excesses make some kind of sense. It literally starts with a classroom lecture and features interludes of students reading international “peace” manifestos (or anti-American tracts) verbatim. It is a shame because the relationship between Kitagawa and his students has real potency.

Of course, the horrors of the bombing are the film’s reason for being. Each characters’ tragedy is certainly heartrending, but the film never reaches the exquisite poignancy of Shohei Imamura’s Black Rain, probably because it lacks a relationship as well developed as the Yoshiko Tanaka-Kazuo Kitamura father-daughter bond.

Okada is very good as Kitagawa and many of the young cast-members are quite extraordinary. Screenwriter Yasutaro Yagi earns a bit of credit for at least mentioning the Bataan Death March and Pearl Harbor. However, the Rape of Nanjing, the Alexandra Hospital Massacre, and the sexual enslavement of “Comfort Women” would have been more to the point. Just how Japan would have been forced to surrender without an Earth-shaking game-changer like the Atomic bomb is never addressed in protest films like this. Nevertheless, we feel deeply for the innocent children, who were just as much victims of their militant government’s intransigence. Recommended as a human drama rather than a history lesson, Hiroshima screens this Friday (1/19), at the Japan Society in Turtle Bay.