Monday, August 06, 2007


Today commemorates the 62nd anniversary of the WWII bombing of Hiroshima and mankind's first aggressive and strategic use of atomic power against other human beings. The humanity of those victims is the focus of Steven Okazaki's documentary White Light Black Rain. Steven Okazaki spoke with The Evening Class last week and I was looking forward to meeting him in person at the film's Pacific Film Archive ("PFA") screening; but, I was felled by a bad cold and couldn't attend. Fortunately, Frako Loden—who served as one of the translators on the film—was present and has graciously offered her dispatch from the evening's event.

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The screening of Steven Okazaki's White Light/Black Rain: The Destruction of Hiroshima and Nagasaki this past Friday, August 3, at Berkeley's Pacific Film Archive—the final screening before its airing on HBO this evening at 7:30PM PT—was sold out.

I'm glad I saw it on the big screen; it was so much more powerful than on DVD. The film highlights images drawn and painted by the survivors of what they saw in the immediate aftermath of the bombs. In fact, these are the images we see rather than photographs—so they are in color and much more emotional. Also included is the manga of survivor Nakazawa Keiji, Barefoot Gen. His father and siblings were crushed in their house when it collapsed.

The color footage shot by the U.S. government (and not released, I believe, until 20 years after the fact) was much more lurid than the usual expected "historical" black and white. Okazaki says he was reluctant to use the color footage at first, thinking that the reds of the victims' burns would be too "grotesque." I thought color footage was a boon; B&W has a distancing tendency in documentaries, making it easier to dismiss footage from the past as something obsolete and irrelevant, while color footage feels immediate and more of our time. So it was hard to dismiss the connection between that horrible footage and the opening and closing footage of throngs of colorfully-dressed Tokyo pedestrians, eating crepes and pushing strollers. It made real the possibility that all these people—whom we don't normally associate with death but with kooky fashions and gadgets—could be vaporized, burned or hit with radiation as well.

The U.S. government's color footage also underscored the claim made by one of the survivors that it used them like guinea pigs. She says that jeeps came and rounded up her and other affected children. They were taken to a building and forced to strip naked. Those who exhibited symptoms like purple spots were examined closely and photographed. "We weren't treated, though," she pointedly reminds us. She remembers shouting at GIs (who had built a landing strip right next to their house, bulldozing the skeletons), "Why did you kill my family?" but—since they didn't understand Japanese—they just smiled at her.

Most importantly, the color footage actually included two of Okazaki's informants: the kid whose entire face was burned and the postal employee who spent 21 months in the hospital recovering from burns to his back. (The latter survived the immediate aftermath of the blast by licking drizzle off a tree—he couldn't move.) It was extraordinary to hear these old men talk about their suffering while we could see their younger selves undergoing hellish treatment. One smiled for the camera as the other closed his eyes in extreme stoicism.

In his introduction, Okazaki traced the gestation of this film as a series of failed attempts. He implied that he was guilt-tripped into making it at first. Back in 1980 his mother suggested that—since he was unemployed at the time and his younger sister wasn't doing too well at S.F. State, he should help her in her classes. She needed to find an atomic bomb survivor she could interview for a paper. Okazaki proposed taking his sister to a monthly meeting of survivors at the Sumitomo Bank in Japantown. His sister said, "Oh, I didn't tell you—I dropped the class," and didn't need to go; but, he decided to go on his own. At the meeting he showed one of his ("not very good") films to the group, who voted unanimously that Okazaki must make a movie about bomb survivors. He said he felt he couldn't let down this group of people who looked like his mother, his aunts and uncles.

Okazaki endeavored to make the movie over 25 years. He wasn't satisfied with the short film he did make (Survivors). A Japanese TV network offered to let him make a film on the subject but balked when it became clear Okazaki was going to criticize the Japanese government. He was going to make the film in conjunction with the Smithsonian's exhibit on the Enola Gay in 1994, but of course that went down in flames due to pressure from U.S. veterans groups. After that Okazaki concluded, "So this is how history is written and which people get to write it." He was bitter about the whole experience.

More recently he filmed Mushroom Club (which PFA programmer Steve Seid—bless his heart—kept calling Mushroom People). HBO's head of documentary development, Sheila Nevins, proposed he make a more comprehensive film about the physiological and psychological effects of the bombs. Okazaki says whenever he balked about showing horrible footage—worried that people would change the channel or walk out of the theater—Nevins would respond, "So what? Does that mean we should censor ourselves?" He gives her all the credit for having the guts to show everything.

The Q&A was long but hit all the right buttons. The film is being received well in Japanese theaters (where it's scheduled to play for 16 weeks), but Okazaki doesn't think it will ever get shown on Japanese TV. He says the response by Japanese TV people is muzukashii, which means "difficult" in the dictionary but always implies "Hell, no!" He invited the Japanese consul in New York and the ambassador in Washington, D.C. when he had screenings there, but both offices blew off his invitations. They chose to ignore him rather than acknowledge him or his film. (The film's criticism is that the survivors didn't get any help from the government until recently.)

This July Japan's defense minister Kyuma Fumio made the controversial argument—tiresomely common in the US but rare in Japan—that the atomic bomb was necessary to bring the war to an end. (I think he said specifically that it "couldn't be helped" and that it prevented the Soviet Union from occupying Hokkaido.) Okazaki happened to be in Japan at the time, so journalists asked him for comment. Okazaki said Kyuma should just watch his film. He doesn't think there was a direct connection; but, the defense minister did resign a few days afterwards.

One questioner asked if he'd tried to contact the pilot of the Enola Gay, Paul Tibbets. (The film does feature four American servicemen relating their experiences in being test-detonators and pilots for the bombs.) Okazaki said no, for several reasons. One, Tibbets was 92, in poor health and hard of hearing. Two, he had told his story at least once a week at veterans' meetings and conventions and wasn't a fresh informant.

This whole issue of "freshness" is a consideration after 60 years, on both sides. One thing Okazaki didn't go into was the fact that there is a whole hibakusha (bomb survivor) industry in Japan. There is hibakusha art, hibakusha literature, hibakusha film, and hibakusha presentations. Some of the hibakusha have made a career of going all over the world talking about their experiences and advocating the end of nuclear weapons use. The Nagasaki survivors haven't been as prominent as the Hiroshima victims. Okazaki says that in his film, the Nagasaki survivors' less-told, "fresher" testimony is the highlight.

Another less-told aspect of the bomb survivors is that they've faced discrimination and ostracism ever since the weeks following the bombings, when mysterious symptoms showed up in people who had seemed fine but who died soon after. The theory developed that they were contagious. As a result, hibakusha have been blatantly rejected for jobs, housing and marriage prospects. This is still going on with descendants of the immediate survivors. The possibility for deformities and birth defects is still real. Over 160,000 people have died subsequent to the 200,000 who died at the time of the bombings.

I guess it was to be expected that nobody in the Berkeley audience tried to defend the bombing as a necessary evil to end the war or to save American lives. Instead there were questions about the benefits of making a film like this for cable ("I can't imagine PBS showing this," Okazaki said), the University of California's role in researching and producing nuclear weapons, and a call to a demonstration happening on Monday.

On my way out, I heard some viewers marveling over something one of the survivors said when she decided not to commit suicide like her sister: "There are two kinds of courage: the courage to die and the courage to live."

Cross-published on Twitch.


acquarello said...

One ironic thing that I noticed at White Light/Black Rain was that in the beginning, when they were asking a bunch of young people what the significance of August 6, 1945 was and none of them knew, one of them was wearing a Gojira shirt. Gojira is a perfect example of the way Hibakusha cinema had evolved, because it was a way of broaching a lot of the fear of the unknown that was related to nuclear radiation without the "taboo" or risk of alienating the U.S., so it was a representation of that fear in its most primal manifestation - not just as a monster, but as a man-made monster.

Incidentally, I loved that comment about the "two types of courage" as well. There were also a few others that I found really poignant, like the survivor's comment that she survived so that she could bear witness, and one of the U.S. pilots who criticized people who were making throwaway comments that we should "nuke" Iraq, saying that anyone who had seen the destruction that an atomic bomb can cause would never much such an idiotic statement.

Michael Guillen said...

Excellent catch, Acquarello! I didn't notice that, though I had given thought to the Gojira connection. I'll have to take another look at the screener.

Unknown said...

I didn't notice that T-Shirt either. But yesterday evening I went to a crane-folding event in the Tenderloin, and the subject of Gojira/Godzilla came up.

The documentary was very moving, but I think I was even more moved by being in the same room as one of the survivors, who addressed the audience after the Salt Lake City screening at Sundance.

I also should mention that I really liked your interview with Okazaki, Michael.

Michael Guillen said...

Again, Brian, it was your Greencine Daily dispatch that caught my attention. It's good to know this online thing works, eh?

acquarello said...

Yeah, it was kind of a quick thing. He was wearing a shirt over the tee, but you could definitely see his scaly head.

Wow, I can't even begin to imagine what it would have been like to be in a Q&A with a survivors. I'd probably have been a blubbering idiot by the end of that program.

I liked Okazaki's comment about wanting to do a documentary from a "fresh angle" so to speak, in particular, the way the Japanese still ostracize the survivors as though they were contagious. Before this, I think only Shohei Imamura broached this topic with Black Rain, where he showed that people were going so far as getting medical certificates from potential marriage prospects from the area as proof that they weren't "affected" by the bomb.

It's a particularly sad reality for the real victims of the bomb, given that the Japanese, as a society, have in a way reinvented themselves (and perhaps rationalized within their own collective consciousness) as victims of the war because of the bomb. There's a bit of selective memory still going on there, which is why this film is not only important as a cautionary tale to warmongering countries, but to Japan as well.

Michael Guillen said...

Sound arguments all around, though I'm a bit ambivalent about your reaction to the presence of the survivor, especially in light of Okazaki's own comments regarding same: "It's an ironic thing. In Japan the survivors are talked about in a special way but in reality they're [discriminated against]. It's the problem. It happens even here. One of the survivors lives in California and people are anxious to meet her but they almost treat her as if she's not a real person. They treat her as a hero-victim and I think that's wrong. My whole point is that the bomb can happen to anyone and it did. It happened to people on their way to work, on their way to school. It makes me uncomfortable when people react in the other way, making them special, going, "Oooooh, there's a survivor here."

I guess you'd have to near be made of steel in order not to feel that way, however.

acquarello said...

Ah, excellent point! You're absolutely right about seeing them as people first rather than A-bomb survivors. On the other hand, it's hard not to feel reverent in a way because few of us have lived through anything like what they've experienced.

This is a bit of a tangent, but your comment makes me think of what Fassbinder once said about how postwar Germany treats Jews, basically that he grew up with people essentially pointing out that this or that person was a Jew and that they should be treated with a great deal of care and regard because of what they've experienced in the war. Basically, he thought that this conscious differentiation itself contributed to modern day anti-Semitism because it perpetuates that idea of "otherness". He's absolutely right, of course.

Michael Guillen said...

It's, without question, a hazardous and slippery slope; but, perhaps, one we need to slip on? I think what impressed me in Okazaki's comment is the smouldering truth that there but for the grace of God go I. That--instead of revering survivors as "hero-victims"--we should consider that we as everyday people on our way to work or school could just as easily be subjected to suoch a horrific experience.

Anonymous said...

Acquarello, I'm glad you called the film GOJIRA instead of Godzilla, since the former is the Raymond-Burr-free reissue that emphasizes the bomb origins of the monster more than the American release does.

And you're right: the bombs have been an excellent opportunity for some Japanese to consider themselves to be the sole, or at least ultimate, victims of war. But I doubt that Steven's film will warn anybody off that kind of "more victimized than thou" attitude.

About being overly respectful to hibakusha: Steven scoffed about one viewer at a Q&A who said she thought one of the on-screen hibakusha "looked like a Buddha."