Tuesday, May 22, 2018

FILM ABOUT HIROSHIMA: Are We All "Children of Hiroshima"?

Return visit to the destroyed city in Children of Hiroshima

At a time when the momentum is growing for the elimination of nuclear weapons, it is worth asking what it is to be "children of Hiroshima."

In recent days I have been profiling a list of films about the atomic bombing of Hiroshima. Today I want to talk about Kaneto Shindo's film, Children of Hiroshima (1952).

I have been struggling with what to say about Children of Hiroshima. Certainly the film makes the point that nuclear weapons, and war, are bad. But it does a great deal more.


Children of Hiroshima tells of a visit back to the city by a young teacher, several years after the bombing of Hiroshima. The film contains extensive footage of the destroyed city, including of iconic locations such as the Industrial Exhibition Hall (with its distinctive dome) and the Peace Memorial (under construction at that time).

There is much in the film that is very painful to look at.

But there is also beauty -- people, landscapes, and the quality of the cinematography itself.

Children of Hiroshima is one of the films that made me a lover of filmmaker Kaneto Shindo's work, and part of that is the beauty that he shares with us.

Certainly Shindo does want us to work against nuclear weapons and war, and one of the ways he empowers us is by giving us the kind of beauty that helps us want to go on living.

Hope: "I love these shoes!"

There is a moment in Children of Hiroshima in which a little boy exclaims about a new pair of shoes he has been given, "I love these shoes!" -- and it is at once so ancillary and yet so authentic that I have thought about it over and over.

It occurs in the midst of an episode of enormous moral and emotional complexity. The visiting teacher has discovered a former employee of her father; the employee is now horribly scarred by the bomb and reduced to begging, and his entire family has been wiped out except for a grandson in an orphanage. The teacher proposes to take the boy back to the distant community in which she now settled, to live in a real home together with her and her aunt and uncle. She urges the grandfather to come, as well. The grandfather knows he cannot go, and for a long time cannot bear to part with his grandson, either. Ultimately, the shoes - pristine white sneakers -- are the grandfather's parting gift to his grandson.

Throughout this episode, I found myself arguing with the teacher: "Why are you making it so difficult for the old man? Who are you to interfere with the way things are?" 

And I found myself arguing with the filmmaker: "What do you accomplish by showing the relatively minor trials of individual people trying to make a new life -- a building being rebuilt, a marriage proposal to a woman with a damaged leg, one couple allowing their fifth child to be adopted by another couple? Shouldn't you be focusing on the big question of making sure nuclear war doesn't happen again?"

The minor trials of individual people trying to make a new life . . . making sure nuclear war doesn't happen again . . . . Is there really a choice to be made between the former and the latter? The more I thought about those sneakers -- a child's simple joy over new shoes -- the more I realized that you can't get the latter without the fierce hope involved in the former. They're all tied up together.

Remembering and forgetting

I also had an argument with the filmmaker about the number of places in the film in which people said, "I can't remember" or "I'm just trying to forget."  Shouldn't the point of the film be to say "Never forget!" . . . ?

It was only when I pondered this problem that I recalled that there are abundant examples of remembering in the film -- such as the improvised memorial that the teacher places on the ground at the site of her former home . . . or the pictures of parents that the bride reverences before departing to her new home . . . or the images of the son and daughter-in-law that the old grandfather informs, "Everything is done" . . . or the account that the little boy has recorded in his copy book at the orphanage -- or, in fact, the scars and semi-healed wounds and destruction that surrounds the people everywhere they look.

I guess I wanted it to be "either/or" but the truth is that it's "both/and."

Like beauty and like the topic of hope, the topic of remembering and forgetting is essential to the truth of the film, and to the experience of activists working to abolish nuclear weapons. We won't live if we can't manage to forget, and yet we won't live if we don't manage to remember.

The possibility for beauty and hope and remembering and forgetting to exist -- for all of us -- in the world after Hiroshima: this is, ultimately, the subject of Children of Hiroshima.

A year and a half ago, I returned from a visit to Hiroshima and began writing a series of posts by asking, What does it mean to say, "We are ALL 'hibakusha'?"

I would now add the question, What does it mean to say, "We are ALL 'children of Hiroshima'?"

See also: more films and resources about the atomic bombing of Hiroshima.

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