It's about a teacher (Nobuko Otowa) going back to Hiroshima, for the first time in four years. It's also directed by Kaneto Shindo, who himself came from Hiroshima prefecture and would make several films about the atomic bomb during his long career. I don't need to say anything more, do I? However let's establish the facts.
(a) On Monday 6th August 1945, at 8:15 am, the A-bomb "Little Boy" was dropped on Hiroshima by an American B-29 bomber. This was the first nuclear bomb ever to be dropped on an enemy during wartime. I had to look up that date, obviously, but this film's Japanese audience would have known not just the date, but the time. The flashback without comment shows us a calendar, then afterwards lots of clocks.
(b) 80,000 people died immediately. Between ten and sixty thousand more people were dead by the end of the year, but the radiation would keep killing for many years after that.
(c) Film footage and information about Hiroshima after the bombing was censored by the occupying Allied forces under MacArthur. It didn't become freely available in Japan until 1951, after the San Francisco Peace Treaty was signed. (This film came out the following year.)
The film's not straining too hard. It doesn't have to. Sometimes all you need to do is be there, look at what's around you and tell the stories of what's before your eyes. This isn't a documentary, indeed being based on a novel, but it occasionally veers towards that territory (e.g. the orphanage) and the important thing is that throughout you know it's real. It's the truth, in a thin cloak of fiction. The characters are played by actors and saying words that were written in a script, but those lines could have been taken from the mouths of any number of real people.
It's also important just for being there. Just seeing the people and the streets gives the film enormous weight. It was shot in Hiroshima, obviously. You can even recognise specific parts of it. There's what looked like the Peace Memorial Museum in mid-construction. We even go inside the remains of the Prefectural Industrial Promotion Hall, which is these days called the Atomic Bomb Dome. That was spooky even for me, and all I've done is visit the city once, in 2011. It looks the same as it does today! (The Japanese have been preserving it in its half-destroyed condition since 1966. It was the only building still standing near the hypocentre.)
It's a powerful film, but it doesn't feel like a normal film. It doesn't have a protagonist and so on, although it does have a dramatic climax. It's simply taking us to a place of horror and showing us how life is going on... although for many people, of course, only for a limited time.
There's the blinded beggar (Osamu Takizawa) and his grandson. What happened to his son? "They sent me his remains." His daughter-in-law? "A victim of the A-bomb." He still has his pride, though, and he doesn't want to talk to Otowa because he doesn't want her to see what he's become. Even to think about him is shattering and he's at the core of this film. What he faces here could tear anyone apart, although I can't help thinking that his grandson's going to be crippled with guilt when he becomes old enough to understand what happened. I'd half-expect him to end up committing suicide.
There are the people who suddenly get ill and die. Even seven years later, it can come for you out of nowhere. "It must be radiation sickness. You never know when it'll come."
There's the couple who are about to adopt a child, because the A-bomb made the wife sterile. She works as a midwife.
There's the orphanage. They have hundreds of children, but of course there are many more who died, were transferred or simply weren't institutionalised.
That's strong stuff. However despite doing all that, the film isn't heavy going. It's neither solemn nor grim and it won't have you opening your wrists. Instead it's full of life, with children running everywhere and sometimes even making me laugh. Every time we talk to a small boy, he's brilliant. Similarly I laughed at the sister who'd get annoyed when her brothers mentioned her impending marriage. She's charming. People are getting on with their lives and it's inspiring, as well as emotional.
There's only one bit that sat oddly with me, which is Shindo's representation of the nuclear explosion itself. Suddenly we're looking at topless women writhing in the ruins, in a manner that slightly pushed me out of the film. It feels theatrical and staged in a way that, to me, didn't seem to fit. However I'm going to assume that this is me, not the movie. It'll be accurate. Clothes were burned off people's backs. I don't know what it's like to be at ground zero of a nuclear attack, making this a bit like discussions of general relativity or quantum mechanics. Some things are so far removed from anything we know that they transgress common sense and other such rules of thumb. This doesn't affect their reality. The failure of imagination is our problem, not the universe's.
Kaneto Shindo, incidentally, is also the director of The Naked Island
, Onibaba and Kuroneko
, among many others. He lived to be a hundred, was making films to the end and apparently also made a few films that are essentially autobiography. The more of his films I see, the more I rate him as an important filmmaker in world cinema, not just within Japan. Nobuko Otowa, meanwhile, gave up a career as a star to be in Shindo's debut film in 1951 and would take leading roles in almost all his films, also becoming his lover and eventually his wife. She's exactly right here, in a role that's calling above all for simplicity.
This was nominated for the Grand Prix at Cannes, by the way.
I can hardly imagine how this film struck its Japanese audience back in 1952. There's almost nothing left for me to say. Shindo says it all for me, on behalf of the 350,000 people of Hiroshima. (That's the pre-nuke population figure, by the way.) It's full of moments that say so much. Note the bit at the end where Otowa, in 1952, hears a plane overhead. She stops moving. They all do.
"Grandad's coming too."