Images from Women of the Mirror

Mrs. Kawase’s broken mirror.

“Miwa’s” broken mirror (point of view of Mrs. Kawase).

“Miwa” and Mrs. Kawase in the broken mirror.

Three generations of women (and a family friend) at Mrs. Kawase’s.

Mrs. Kawase reflected in the glass of her hotel in Hiroshima.

Traumatic memory: Miwa at her mother’s suicide attempt.

“Who am I” : “Miwa” interrogates the broken mirror.

Mrs. Kawase shields herself against the sun.

The unborn generation—shadows against the rice paper screen.

Images from the work of Chim/Pom:

Meeting youth in the devastated town of Soma.

100 Cheers (with youth in Soma).

Travelling to the Fukushima plant in hazmat suits.

Leaving behind a hazmat scarecrow.

Nuclear Nation by Atsushi Funahashi: in the wake of disaster.


Yoshida’s Women of the Mirror:
amnesia and the problem of representation

In the long run, Yoshida’s film Women of the Mirror (Kagame no onna tachi), made in 2002, is likely to be considered the most eloquent cinematic treatment of the bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. It is also evidence of the continued relevance in Japan of questions of identity formation around hibakusha and their children. Ai Kawase, a woman who was only 17 in Hiroshima in 1945, is searching for her daughter Miwa, born in Hiroshima in 1946. At the age of 20, the daughter broke a large mirror, leaving the house in a rage after exclaiming,

“Hiroshima and me—who am I really?”

Four years later the mother is called to the hospital where her daughter gives birth to a baby girl, and then disappears again, abandoning her child. The grandchild Natsuki, now in her 20s, has grown up with her grandmother; the plot of the film revolves around the accidental discovery of an amnesiac woman in her 40s, living under the name of Masako Onoue, who is found with some documents belonging to Miwa. In the apartment of the amnesiac the mother finds a mirror broken in a pattern similar to that of the broken mirror in her own home. Thus the broken mirror image becomes a visual metaphor for the fractured identities of women who survived the bomb to become mothers and grandmothers. The three women — Mrs. Kawase, the woman who may be Miwa, and Natsuki — travel to Hiroshima together in the hope that Miwa will retrieve her memory and find her way back to her real identity; but the project fails. Visiting the sites and the hospital lead to several revelations about Natsuki’s real grandfather (a man who suffered radiation sickness) and Mrs. Kawase’s suicide attempt by drowning when this man died. Yoshida inserts memory sequences of an isolated and crying little girl next to a roiling sea, which suggests that Miwa has a traumatic memory of this suicide attempt. Back in her Tokyo apartment she tries once more to remember who she is in front of the broken mirror. She fails, and then disappears again, rejecting the idea of joining a family when she is not sure of her identity.

In an interview included along with the DVD released in France, Yoshida says that at first he felt he had no right to make a film about Hiroshima or Nagasaki because he had not experienced the bomb directly. However, after 50 years he also felt that he had a responsibility to address the issue. By inventing an amnesiac protagonist, he was trying to represent what is essentially un-representable (Claude Lanzmann has made similar claims about the Holocaust). Miwa, who was born in Hiroshima the year after the bomb, is a second generation survivor who lives on the margins of society, an effective outcast because she knows that her identity is somehow connected to Hiroshima (in one scene, Yoshida superimposes the images of Mrs. Kawase and Miwa onto the city by filming their reflections in the hotel window). At the same time, she cannot retrieve it in her memory. As a protagonist she stands for all that is unsayable and even unimaginable about the experience of the bomb. Until Mrs. Kawase’s confession in the hospital room in Hiroshima, even the granddaughter Natsuki did not know who her true grandfather was.

It’s possible to see Miwa (who until the end is not even completely sure that she is Miwa) as one of the actual women survivors who never go out in society because their faces are disfigured with keloid scars. Her amnesia can also be read as a refusal of memory. She is afraid to be identified as a woman who abandoned her child (later she is interviewed by another couple who is seeking a daughter who even killed her infant). The refusal of stigmatized memory was also a symptom of some survivors. The idea of being a hibakusha was so troubling that in some cases, when the physical evidence could be concealed, the victims even decided to forgo the medical treatment and compensation for which they would have been eligible.[30] [open endnotes in new window]

Yoshida’s use of the mirror recalls one of the case studies in Robert Jay Lifton’s Death in Life: Survivors of Hiroshima. The parents of a 13-year-old girl who had suffered facial burns refused to show her a mirror during her convalescence; afterwards when she realized she would never regain the face she had before the bomb, she felt anger toward all mirrors, which she wanted to break.[31] Miwa’s “marking” is an allegorical representation of the survivor as outcast.

Yoshida’s stunning film ends with no clear resolution and therefore leaves the spectator in the position of investigator charged with sorting out the facts. He pulls us in as witnesses; the film’s first shots introduce a mysterious car that follows Mrs. Kawase’s movements around town. We don’t even get to see the face of Mrs. Kawase until she has been followed for more than three minutes into the film. The “chase” scene is accompanied by an eerie, dissonant piano and violin (by Keiko Harada). In the end a female TV reporter emerges from the car to ask Mrs. Kawase about a patient her physician husband treated in Hiroshima after the bombing — an American who had been exposed to radiation. Mrs. Kawase refuses an interview, but this American will resurface later when the three generations of women visit Hiroshima together.

The investigative tone of the film is underscored by Mrs. Kawase's visit to the government office that has located a woman whom they believe to be her daughter. Besides the medical documents found in her apartment, she has also been in the habit of picking up small girls in the park on the 11th of any given month, playing with them and then allowing them to return to their parents. It turns out that Miwa gave birth to the infant she abandoned on a July 11th.

Yoshida’s camerawork and editing also reinforces the investigative mode, staying at an objective distance when Mrs. Kawase and her friend Mr. Goda go to interview the young woman in her apartment. It is only when Mrs. Kawase notices the broken mirror that the director uses a point of view shot and then combines the images of the two women in the same mirror.

In 1969 Yoshida outlined his approach to film in an essay titled, “My Theory of Film: a logic of self-negation.” He states that he strives to dismantle narration. A film, he states, must be comprised in a single image. Actors should transcend the cinematic frame and express with their entire body (Robert Bresson argued for something similar in Notes on the Cinematographer when he stated that an actor should be “all face”). The director’s concept is carried out in this film, in which actors’ movements, particularly in the roles of Mrs. Kawase, Miwa and Natsuki, are formal and elegiac, underscoring the seriousness of their preoccupation with the Hiroshima catastrophe that has impacted their lives.

According to Yoshida, it is up to the spectator to create the film’s meaning—he wants to avoid anything that would conform to prior expectation. A film must be

“caught between two clear mirrors of watching and being watched, situated in the middle of an endless reflection.”[32]

Yoshida’s “single image” in this film could well be the color white, the white of the screen, and the white flash of the bomb. Mrs. Kawase shields herself from light all through the film with her white umbrella and holds her hand against the sunlight on two occasions, an oblique reference to the fact that the temperature of the bomb on the ground was said to be equal to the temperature of the surface of the sun. The film credits at the beginning are white letters with a thin black outline on a white background. At the end of the film, Yoshida makes a redemptive move, as Mrs. Kawase and Natsuki look at the imaginary shadow of a little girl playing behind the white rice-paper screens (shoji). Mrs. Kawase imagines the girl’s identity to be, in succession, Miwa, Natsuki, and Natsuki’s future child. In this final scene, Yoshida redeems cinematic representation as well, since the shadow play also functions as a metaphor for cinematic art (a more complete one than the fractured mirror, which contests any attempt at coherent representation). Even so the film ends on an anxious note. The final shot is a fade to white as Mrs. Kawase shields herself from the blinding sunlight—a warning against future Hiroshimas with their predictably devastating effects.

By refusing closure on the investigation in which the spectator has become involved (at the end we still do not know whether the young woman is actually Miwa, and it appears that even Mrs. Kawase has refused a DNA test, perhaps because she fears a negative answer), Yoshida remains true to his principles of creating an open cinema. As Adam Bingham notes,

“Cinema for Yoshida is, like personal identity, a process that can never be said to reach completion, can never stand as an arbiter of truth and empirical precision.”[33]

The play of mirrors in this film reflects back on the spectator, caught in the mirror illusion of the frame, while also being asked to stand outside it—not only spectator but witness. At the same time, the mirror functions as a trap for the three generations of women. Miwa can’t see who she is when she looks in the mirror, and therefore breaks mirrors. Her mother Mrs. Kawase sees the false image of someone who has tried to repress her own past experience at Hiroshima—a repression that has had serious consequences for Miwa. And Natsuki is the third generation victim of her mother’s as well as her grandmother’s obfuscation of identity. The hope of breaking out of the endless play of mirrors within mirrors lies with the as-yet unborn fourth generation. Kenzaburo Oe has written that for hibakusha and their descendants to continue to have children despite the trauma represents both hope and courage, given the stigma of possible genetic effects.[34]

Of the three films I have treated at length, Yoshida’s is the one that most strongly resists narrative closure along with the comforts this can bring to the film spectator free to remain an outside observer.[35] Chronicle of a Survivor ends with Kiichi Nakajima’s heroic choice of insanity as the ultimate statement about a world where standards of “sanity” make no sense. The officially released ending of Black Rain holds out the slim hope that Yasuko might survive. Only in the alternative ending does Imamura turn her into a wandering ascetic seeking atonement for being spared the fate of other A-bomb victims. Yet even here, the poignant scene when she happens upon the sculptor Yoichi and fails to speak to him reinserts the narrative within the genre of melodrama. Women of the Mirror refuses to put the A-bomb safely in the past. Instead, Yoshida invites the spectator’s participation in imagining how the protagonists’ lives will go forward. Will Miwa regain her memory and return to her family? Will Natsuki embrace her heritage as a third-generation victim and find the courage to have children of her own? Will Mrs. Kawase be changed after she acknowledges her own suppressed history? And finally, in the play of allegory to which the spectator is invited, will the world remember what dropping an atomic bomb on living people actually entails?

In his episodic film Dreams (1990), one of his last, Kurosawa represents the explosion of six nuclear reactors behind Mount Fuji, and the attempt of the panicked population to escape. Twenty years after this apocalyptic vision, Japanese concerns about radiation have resurfaced after the release of tons of radioactive materials into the ocean and surrounding countryside subsequent to the tidal wave that damaged the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power plant in 2011. One of the most prominent spokespersons has been Hido Shintaro, a 95-year-old doctor and former director of the counseling center at the Japan Confederation of A- and H-Bomb Sufferers Organizations, who was exposed to radiation in Hiroshima in 1945 and subsequently treated over 6,000 fellow victims. He has gone on record stating that the radiation exposure at Fukushima has resulted in symptoms similar to those suffered by A-bomb victims.[36]

Artists and videographers have also responded to the challenge represented by the March 2011 earthquake, tsunami, and level 7 nuclear disaster—the only such accident since Chernobyl in 1986—at the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear plant.[37] The six-member Japanese artist collective Chim/Pom dealt with the disaster on many fronts. The video of their solo exhibition “Real Times” shows them travelling to the disabled plant in protective white hazmat (hazardous material) suits, leaving one of them behind as a scarecrow, staging an event with youthful survivors of the town of Soma called “100 Cheers,” and “updating” the large 1950s mural by the Japanese surrealist Taro Okamoto, “The Myth of Tomorrow,” that was installed in Tokyo’s Shibuya subway station in 2008.[38] Okamoto’s mural depicts a human figure being torn apart by an atomic explosion. The Chim/Pom group added images of Fukushima (faithful to the style of the original artist) on the blank wall adjacent to Okamoto’s signature piece in a Tokyo train station. Chim/Pom has found a way to expose a raw nerve in Japanese society. They were accused of defacing the mural even though their intervention left no traces once their panel was removed. Even more controversial was their stunt in Hiroshima, where they hired a skywriting plane in 2008 to write the Japanese character for “pika” (explosion) over the city. For that action they were forced to make a public apology.[39]

The 2012 documentary film Nuclear Nation by Atsushi Funahashi relates the experience of the 1,415 former inhabitants of the town of Futaba, ground zero of the Tokyo Electric Power Company (TEPCO) whose Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power plant was the site of three hydrogen explosions. Because of the high levels of radiation, the former residents are not allowed to return except for short visits to try and reclaim some of their possessions from their ruined abodes. They have become nuclear refugees, living in an abandoned schoolhouse in Saitama, a suburb outside Tokyo. Among the ruins of Futaba, a damaged archway ironically proclaims, “A brilliant future for the birthplace of atomic energy.”[40]

As the nation that has suffered the most from nuclear disaster, Japan is now rethinking its commitment to nuclear power, and has witnessed mass street demonstrations. Similar public discussion is taking place in several Asian and European countries.[41]

In 1997 The Japan Peace Museum and the Japan Confederation of A- and H-Bomb Sufferers Organization published The Nuclear Century: Voices of the Hibakusha of the World. The book included images from several post-Hiroshima and Nagasaki nuclear disasters. Photojournalist Hiromitsu Toyosaki wrote:

“People all over the world have become hibakusha as a result of exposure to radiation that is produced in all the stages of nuclear arms production and nuclear power generation such as uranium mining and refining, uranium enrichment, the production of nuclear armaments and nuclear testing, production of nuclear fuel and nuclear power generation, reprocessing of spent nuclear fuel, and treatment and disposal of nuclear waste.”[42]

To echo the sentiment in The Nuclear Century: We are all hibakusha

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