copyright 2013, Jump Cut: A Review of Contemporary Media
Jump Cut
, No. 55, fall 2013

Amnesiac memory:
Hiroshima/Nagasaki in Japanese film

by Inez Hedges

Nowhere does historical memory have more relevance to the present than in Hiroshima and Nagasaki.[1] [open endnotes in new window] Writers as diverse as French philosopher Jean Baudrillard and Japanese Nobel laureate Kenzaburo Oe have commented that the dates of August 6 and 9, 1945, forever altered our understanding of what it means to be human, in that humanity can now envisage its own, permanent obliteration along with that of most life forms on the planet. Even if all nuclear weapons were to be abolished, they cannot be un-invented—the contemporary, and perhaps last, phase of humanity is a nuclear one.[2]

The understanding that the “atomic age” entails fundamental changes in perception did not come all at once in 1945. Indeed the conceptualization of our new situation is still evolving. The initial victims at Hiroshima and Nagasaki had no words at first for the destruction in one flash of their entire communities. The A-bomb dropped on Hiroshima at 8:15 a.m. on August 6, 1945, exploded 600 meters above the center of the city and released the equivalent of 16,000 tons of TNT, creating an enormous fireball 100 meters wide whose temperature was as hot as the surface of the sun; the shock blast flattened the city. Some 90,000 to 166,000 died instantly or in the following days due to burns and radiation exposure. In addition the atomic fission released lethal doses of radiation that killed thousands more over time, including those who went to the city within days of the bombing to search for loved ones.[3] The devastation in Nagasaki was similar.

In the aftermath, as the Japanese endured occupation by the victorious U.S. forces until 1952, public discussion of the bombs was prohibited.[4] The Atomic Bomb Casualties Commission set up by the U.S. forces conducted research on the effects of the bomb on the population but did not offer treatment. A report was not published until 1956.[5] At the same time, the Japanese government also discouraged discussion of the bombs and the subsequent Japanese surrender. There was thus a period of official silence about the human suffering brought about by the bombs.

In addition, survivors faced discrimination within Japanese society and therefore were often reluctant to talk of their experiences. Survivors or those exposed to radiation after the blast often bore scars from the burns on their faces or the rest of their bodies. Many of them suffered from excessive fatigue and were considered undesirable as workers. Several women who had been pregnant at the time of their exposure gave birth to abnormal children. Girls who had been exposed were judged to be unsuitable marriage partners lest their children be similarly afflicted (to some extent this continues in Japan today, as people fear that the genes of exposed victims and their descendants might be damaged).

The Japanese term “hibakusha” refers both to those who survived the immediate effects of the bomb as well as those who were exposed to radiation afterwards. In 1954 the U.S. H-bomb test on the Bikini Islands created new victims of radiation exposure. This included islanders who were forced to evacuate as well as 10,000 Japanese fisherman and their catches. The case of the crew of the “Fifth Lucky Dragon” fishing boat, whose members came down with radiation sickness from the blast, was a wake-up call. This event, more or less coinciding with the end of the U.S. occupation of Japan and following the renewed threat of atomic bombs being dropped on populations during the Korean War (1950-53), brought the concerns of hibakusha to the front lines of public discourse.

Some 10 years after the initial bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, the impact of those events on the collective memory of Japan—and eventually the world—finally began to take shape. Sixty Japanese organizations, including women’s, labor, youth, and hibakusha groups—with a total of 2.5 million members—came together to form the Japan Council against A- and H-bombs (Gensuikyo). During the Second World Conference Against A- and H-Bombs held in Hiroshima in 1956, Hibakusha organizations from prefectures all over Japan joined to create the Hidankyo, or Japan Confederation of A and H-Bomb Sufferers. Hibakusha came forward to demand compensation and medical treatment from the Japanese government.[6]

Collective memory interprets the past with a view toward the present. Although, as J. Samuel Weber argues, “there is no sure method for ascertaining what constitutes collective memory on any given topic,”[7] still we can examine writings, images, and films to see how Japanese society has processed the experience of Hiroshima and Nagasaki across time, along with significant shifts and changes of emphasis.

From the start, language seemed inadequate to convey a trauma without precedent in history. Nevertheless, serious attempts were made at describing the effects of the bombs on the ground. In the U.S., John Hersey’s novel Hiroshima described the lives of six survivors of the bombings in the aftermath of the blast. After first appearing in The New Yorker in August 1946, the book quickly achieved worldwide distribution, except in Japan where it was not allowed to be published until 1949.[8] Of Hersey’s effort French philosopher Georges Bataille has written that it has

“the slowness of revelation that gradually changes a catastrophe, which strikes in an isolated, animal way, into an intelligible representation.”[9]

Hersey’s eyewitness narration (based on interviews with survivors) anticipated the hundreds of autobiographical survivor testimonials that have since been collected by Hidankyo and other organizations.[10] The testimonials personalize and authenticate individual suffering and in doing so contest the reduction of the thousands of victims to mere objects in a military operation. They seek to convey an understanding of the catastrophe on a personal level that makes it comprehensible in terms of family, community, and national culture. Individually they assert themselves as private persons, above and beyond their “hibakusha” status. Retrospectively they argue for resistance against the recurrence of such bombings anywhere in the world by detailing the bombs’ effects, both immediate and long-term, on the victims.

At the same time, survivors have often declared factual eyewitness reports as well as documentary films inadequate. What these accounts and films leave out are the psychological dimensions of the bomb’s aftermath, and the complex negotiations around identity that every survivor had to deal with in the post-war society. Instead, the works, literary and cinematic, that best communicate the multi-layered and complex identity negotiations of the hibakusha have come from Japan’s literary writers and filmmakers. The films include Shohei Imamura’s Black Rain (based on the novel by Masuji Ibuse), Akira Kurosawa’s Chronicle of a Survivor, and Kiju (Yoshishige) Yoshida’s Women of the Mirror. The literary works are numerous; they encompass The Crazy Iris, a collection of short stories edited by Kenzaburo Oe; The Bells of Nagasaki by Takashi Nagai; The Devil’s Heritage by Hiroyuki Agawa; and hundreds of stories, poems, and literary essays.

The three films by three of Japan’s most prolific and talented directors allow some periodization of Japanese collective memory. Akira Kurosawa’s Chronicle of a Survivor (Kimono no kiroku, 1955)[11] focuses on the still unprocessed trauma of the bomb. His protagonist is a patriarch and factory owner who is obsessed with a plan to move his entire family to a farm in Brazil—his wife and legitimate children as well as two mistresses and three children born out of wedlock—where he thinks they will be safer. The film was made in the aftermath of the Bikini Islands H-bomb test that revived Japanese fears of radioactive contamination.

Shohei Imamura’s Black Rain (Kuroi ame, 1989), made a full generation after Kurosawa’s film, addresses the effects of radiation sickness and the pariah status of survivors in Japanese society. The fear of contamination is a recurrent theme in works that deal with the difficulty that young women faced in finding marriage partners if they were exposed to radiation from the atomic bombs. This film came out at a time when most hibakusha were old enough to have safely married off their children and could come forward to claim their rights as survivors without visiting discrimination on their families.

Finally, Kiju Yoshida’s film Women of the Mirror (Kagama no onna tachi), made in 2002, is evidence of the continued contemporary relevance of questions of identity formation around hibakusha (survivors) and their children. The film also addresses the issue of amnesia around the atomic bomb, and the way that memory suppression can wreak havoc in individuals and society.

Traumatic memory: Kurosawa’s Chronicle of a Survivor

Kurosawa’s Chronicle of a Survivor presents us with a protagonist who is incapacitated by concerns over the threat of the atomic bomb. Kiichi Nakajima (Toshiro Mifune), the owner of a foundry, is trying to move his family to Brazil (after squandering part of his fortune on a large unfinished underground bunker in Japan) to keep them safe from atomic attacks. We don’t learn whether he experienced the atomic bomb directly, yet his reaction to the sound of a passing airplane and a simultaneous “white flash” from a thunderstorm suggests that he suffers from a classic case of trauma as defined by Cathy Caruth in Trauma: Explorations in Memory:

“The pathology consists…solely in the structure of its experience or reception: the event is not assimilated or experienced fully at the time, but only belatedly, in its repeated possession of the one who experiences it. To be traumatized is precisely to be possessed by an image or event.”[12]

Chronicle of a Survivor came out in the same year as another film about atomic trauma—the monster sci-fi fantasy Gojira (Godzilla). Unlike Kurosawa’s film, which can be seen as a “working through” of survivor trauma, Gojira fixates on images of pure terror as the helpless population is pummeled by an immense and uncontrollable force.[13]

In Kurosawa’s film, the story of Mr. Kiichi Nakajima is presented through the eyes of a narrator, a circumstance that helps to reframe the narrative in its broader social context. Kurosawa introduces the narrator through the device of a court case being brought against him by his own family for incompetence and fiscal irresponsibility. The narrator is a dentist, Dr. Harada (Takashi Shimura) who has agreed to be a mediator (with two other judges) in family court cases. The doctor offers spectators a way to identify with a character in the narrative, a point of view that offers a degree of objectivity. Ultimately, Dr. Harada is convinced by the three other judges to side with the family; but later he comes to regret the decision. His hesitation opens up areas of uncertainty for the spectators, who are thereby encouraged to weigh the evidence against their own feelings and opinions.

Visually, Kurosawa suggests through framing and mise-en-scène that the trauma of the A-bomb is one that marks the whole society. The first shots of the film are of crowds and traffic, without picking out any individual. Kiichi’s interview with his older mistress and her grown daughter is shot in deep focus, as people unrelated to the drama cross back and forth behind the apartment window. Repeatedly the factory itself is shown in wide shots, bringing the individual family drama into the space of the workplace and suggesting the effect the move would have on others. When Kiichi actually burns his factory down to force the family’s decision, Kurosawa directs our attention to the workers who have now all lost their jobs. Here also the director inserts an image of the burned factory that would have memory resonances for the victims of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. A shot of Nagasaki’s obliterated Mitsubishi plant taken by a Japanese camera crew after the bombing (and sequestered for 20 years by the US authorities) bears a remarkable resemblance to Kiichi’s destroyed factory.[14]

After Kiichi is committed to an asylum, the deep focus continues as Dr. Harada interviews the psychiatrist who is caring for him. In the back, the director has posed other patients in ways that memorialize the well-known iconography of the A-bomb victims. Visiting the patient in his cell, Dr. Harada learns that the deranged hero now believes himself to be on another planet. He imagines that the sun outside his window is Earth consumed in a conflagration. Here the director positions the spectator alongside Dr. Harada as a witness. He is shown from the back looking out the window in silence with the bright sun between him and Kiichi, who erupts in grief at what he believes to be the destruction of our planet. The point of view of the “madman” and the objective judge have become one.

Kurosawa’s film met with incomprehension upon its first release both in Japan and abroad. Most critics overlooked the subtleties of the mise-en-scène and wrote about the film’s narrative content without any consideration of its form. If Kurosawa meant to make a film about the dangers of atomic weapons, why, they asked, present the main protagonist as a madman? More recent critics have continued to undervalue the film. Robert J. Lifton calls it “confused and melodramatic”; Joan Mellen praises it as “the finest Japanese film on atomic war” but then criticizes Kurosawa for concluding it “with a rather flat challenge to our sanity.”[15]

Noel Burch, who has written the most perceptive comments on the film, describes Kurosawa’s approach as Brechtian:

“Keys to the meaning of the ‘unworthiness’ of the family (and yet the need to save them in spite of themselves), to the lucid ‘insanity’ of the old man (whose sickness is health to a progressive Japanese audience) and to the realistically pessimistic ‘inconclusive’ ending, are provided by a reading in terms of ‘epic theatre’.”[16]

Seen this way, the frame story of the court case can be seen as one that places spectators in the position of weighing the family members’ individual concerns over the anxiety of the patriarch who wants to disrupt their way of life. Here again, Kurosawa uses spatial relations between the different branches of the family to articulate the complexity of their relations—there is argument about who is the family “core” (admitted to the court proceedings) and who is on the “fringe” (the mistresses and their offspring, but also the husband of the legitimate daughter); who has the authority to speak for others (the eldest son) and who is spoken for (the daughters and the mother). Spectators may also wonder at the wisdom of sequestering all the moving parts (the “core” family and the mistresses with their offspring) in the same remote farmhouse in the Brazilian countryside. Kurosawa’s strategy is not to raise any of these questions directly. They occur to the spectators who are presented with scenes of the family drama without commentary. Instead, the film, in the fashion of Brecht’s epic theatre, encourages spectators to think about their own vulnerability and their own complex networks of attachments that prevent radical changes to their living arrangements.

Although this is a film about trauma, in many ways it attempts to move beyond the static fixation of the trauma image. It does so by exploring the multiple moving parts of the complex family drama and thus normalizing atomic fears as something that can be discussed. This becomes clearest as the judges are deliberating and Dr. Harada expresses his second thoughts about delivering an insanity verdict against Mr. Nakajima:

“His anxiety about the atomic bomb is something we all share; we just don’t feel it quite as strongly. We don’t build underground shelters or plan to move to Brazil—but can we claim that this feeling is beyond comprehension? The Japanese all share it to greater or lesser degrees.”

The film does not entirely fit within the genre of family melodrama since, as in the Brechtian epic theatre, the protagonist (in this case Dr. Harada) is portrayed as someone who can learn and change his attitudes. That no solution is given encourages spectators to reflect on the circumstance that, in the atomic age, there is no safe haven. An aspect that is rarely commented on by critics is the way that Kurosawa foregrounds the summer heat, punctuated by thunderstorms: people are continuously fanning themselves, wiping off sweat, or sitting inside during the heavy rains. In this way the psychological stress is given a corresponding expression in physical discomfort.

Finally, there is another way to look at Kurosawa’s protagonist Mr. Nakajima, who might be considered the embodiment of an existentialist hero. What John Whittier Treat writes about Kenzaburo Oe’s discussion of the hibakusha in Hiroshima Notes applies to Kurosawa’s hero as well:

“The annihilation of their city has rendered them acutely aware of their emptiness, their anguish, and thus potentially of their freedom.”[17]

Treat also comments on Oe’s depiction of a grandfather who goes insane after he is unable to help his hibakusha grandson:

“Oe may feel sorry for him, but he also describes him with admiration, perhaps because he too recognizes insanity as a ‘brave’ choice in a world which has, after the ‘rational’ decision to drop an atomic bomb, so devalued sanity.”[18]

Kiichi Nakajima strives to do what he considers the proper thing for his family though he lives without hope; although some might see him as a dominating patriarch, there is another way to read his actions—as the ultimate rebellion against the false sense of security of a conformist society.

Imamura’s Black Rain: the hibakusha as outcast

The fear of contamination is a recurrent theme in literary and fictional works that deal with the difficulty that young hibakusha women faced in finding marriage partners. “The House of Hands,” a story by survivor Mitsuharu Inoue and anthologized by Kenzaburo Oe in The Crazy Iris, relates the fate of four young women who had taken refuge in a village after radiation exposure.[19] A marriage proposal to one of them, Rie, is brusquely cancelled once her history becomes known. The children of another, Shigeno, have both died in childhood; in the course of the story, Seiko, a third, dies from bleeding after a miscarriage. The prospects for the fourth, Junko, seem dim after the fate that befalls the others. The village wants to prevent new refugees from coming, fearing that it will become known as a village of outcasts, and that their own (unexposed) daughters will be marked as unmarriageable.

The burns caused by the bomb healed with raised and reddened scar tissue called keloid (from the Greek khele, claw). Many women who were marked with keloid scars preferred to live hidden away from society. Oe states that there were still over 1,000 such women in 1964, and that men also found that their scars made them undesirable as marriage partners.[20]

Shohei Imamura’s Black Rain (Kuroi Ame, 1989), adapted from the novel by Masuji Ibuse that was serialized in the literary journal Shincho in 1965-66, centers on the marriage prospects of Yasuko, who has no visible scars but who was exposed to radiation along with her aunt and uncle after the bombing while traversing the city in order to get to safety. The uncle suffers from chronic fatigue (a frequent ailment of bomb survivors), while the aunt has remained apparently healthy. Ever since, Yasuko has lived with the aunt and uncle (her mother died after giving birth to her). The issue is the discrimination Yasuko faces once marriage prospects suspect that she was exposed to radiation.

Like Hersey’s novel, Ibuse’s is based on survivor testimonies and even incorporates much of an actual diary by Shigematsu Shizuma (whose name is not changed in the novel, and who appears in the fiction as the uncle figure). In order to counter rumors about his niece, Shigematsu decides to recopy her diary of the days of August 6, 1945 and after; and to complete her narrative with a copy of his own diary. His plan is to offer these to prospective bridegrooms to allay the fears of the family. In the wider context, the couple and Yasuko have moved to the country village of Kobotake where the uncle is involved in a fish farm with some fellow survivors.

Ibuse’s novel was enormously successful in Japan. Here was a novel that showed how the normal rhythms of village life, of marriage and ritual could go on despite the threat of a traumatic break with the past caused by the bomb and the Japanese defeat. John Whittier Treat has called the novel ideologically conservative, in that it seamlessly integrates the historical break occasioned by the atomic bomb within Shigematsu’s efforts to stitch up the past into a coherent picture, and to provide continuity with the present.[21] Along with the return to ritual, Shigematsu emphasizes the salutary forces of nature. After Yasuko belatedly falls ill with radiation disease, Shigematsu interrogates the sky: “If a rainbow appears over those hills now, a miracle will happen,” he prophesied to himself. “Let a rainbow appear—not a white one, but one of many hues—and Yasuko will be cured.” Yet at the same time this vision is disturbed by a double consciousness, an awareness of the catastrophe that this is not to be:

“So he told himself, with his eyes on the nearby hills, though he knew all the while it could never come true.”[22]

Shigematsu embodies the traumatized split self, who holds on to the rituals of the past even while disbelieving that they have relevance for the present, what Robert Jay Lifton has called the “doubling” of the traumatized person.[23] Neither his transcription of the diaries, nor his attachment to the rituals of the agricultural countryside have brought about a reintegration of his fragmented self. Instead, his state of mind recalls that of survivors who have asserted that they feel themselves to be different persons before and after the bomb.[24]

Imamura’s film version, made some 20 years after the publication of the novel, brings some of Ibuse’s themes forward into a changed social landscape. While some of the elements of the narrative are maintained, there is also considerable expansion and even transposition. I would argue that this is not only due to the need for the adaptation of Ibuse’s story into the language of images, but that the Japanese processing of the collective memory of the bomb had also undergone significant changes—some of these, of course, due to the influence of such works as the novel Black Rain itself. As John Whittier Treat has written, Ibuse’s novel and especially his use of the diary form covered over the historical fissure created by the bomb with the account of ordinary people going about their lives:

“against the destructive power of the bomb stands the constructive power of words, language, writing.”[25]

The photographic basis of film makes it uniquely suited for this portrayal of the everyday; at the same time filmmakers can resort to visual illusion to suggest almost any imagined reality. Imamura’s film moves between these two poles, tracing the country life of the village on the one hand and offering reenactments of the diary entries of August 6-15 (the day of the surrender and the radio address of the Emperor acknowledging Japan’s defeat) on the other.

For the country episodes, Imamura introduces several new elements. Shigematsu’s two fellow survivors and collaborators in the carp-breeding project, Shokichi and Kotaro, fall ill of radiation sickness and are buried according to Buddhist ritual in the film version. This is one of many funerals that punctuate the narrative (in the first of these Shigematsu is ask to read sutras for a colleague who has died in the bombing; the last funeral is that of Yasuko’s aunt). The funeral scenes serve both to visually emphasize the uncle’s reliance on ritual and to bring the theme of death—a constant presence in the minds of those who have (temporarily) survived—into the foreground.

The most radical change is the introduction of Yuichi, a young man about Yasuko’s age who suffers from post-traumatic stress disorder. When he hears any vehicle approaching the village—truck, bus, or motorcycle—he rushes out and throws himself under it to stop it in its tracks. In a way Yuichi is a modified version of the young soldier Iwatake, a soldier whose diary entries appear toward the end of Ibuse’s novel and whose miraculous survival despite major injuries and serious radiation illness symptoms is meant to lift Yasuko’s spirits and revive her will to live. From this character, Imamura takes only the circumstance that he was drafted into a squad of soldiers who were trained to crawl under enemy tanks with explosives—basically a suicide mission. In the novel, Yasuko and the soldier Iwatake never meet, whereas in the film Yasuko befriends Yuichi, with whom she shares an outsider status. He brings her some of the Buddhist Arhat and Jizo statues that he sculpts from stone and lines them up outside her house. Arhat Buddists are those who have attained superior wisdom; the Jizo Buddha embodies the aspiration to alleviate suffering. He is regarded as the protector of women, children, and travelers. These statues are found on roadsides all over Japan (one of the preserved markers of the Hiroshima bombing is a damaged Jizo statue).

Imamura also recreates on film the characters’ experience of August 1945. The problem with such reenactments is that spectators are able to remind themselves that these are achieved by means of filmic illusion (and accompanied here by the piercing musical strains of Tôru Takemitsu) whereas the sufferings of the actual victims were all too real. Kurosawa wrote that he had not seen Imamura’s film, but that he felt that the experience of the bombed was impossible to film:

“That state of destruction and of such terrible human anguish does not belong to the realm of the presentable…it is better to evoke and nurture the imagination; this is far more terrifying.”[26]

This may be where writing has the advantage over film, in leaving the visual details to the reader’s imagination. Nevertheless, Imamura found at least a partial solution in transposing the intertextual and collage structure of the novel into his images by recreating on the screen some of the artwork created by survivors of the bombings. Over 900 artworks by survivors were solicited in 1974 by the Japanese Broadcasting Corporation, exhibited at the Peace Culture Center in Hiroshima from August 1 to August 6, 1975, and subsequently published. Like Ibuse who could rely on actual diaries for his novel, Imamura also had images of the bombing and its aftermath created by actual survivors. Such images as the woman trapped under the tiles of her roof, the charred bodies of the dead, and people who walked with outstretched arms from which their burned skin hung down, all shown in Imamura’s reenactment of the catastrophe, are consistent with the drawings of the victims.[27]

In the first ending Imamura proposed for the film, Yasuko chooses to become a wandering Buddhist ascetic; she feels she has no right to personal happiness when so many others have suffered. Yuichi is unable to dissuade her and spends his life waiting for her and continuing to sculpt his statues. Imamura visually eternalizes the image of the wanderer by assimilating Yasuko to Arhat and Jizo statues. Toward the end of the film Yasuko happens upon some fellow penitents in a wooded grove. As she steps in to join the group, they are all turned to stone and transformed into statues. This ending was filmed in color, whereas the rest of the film is in black and white—a choice that brings the story forward into the modern era. Yasuko appears as a ghost from the past as she wanders into the modern city. She also spies upon Yuichi who continues to sculpt his figures at a Buddhist temple, but she does not speak to him.

This ending did not satisfy the filmmaker and he called the actors back to the set after shooting was supposedly finished. Instead, the film was released with an ending closer to that of Ibuse’s novel. After Yasuko sends away her last suitor, and becomes ill with radiation disease, it is Yuichi who carries her to the ambulance, leaving the uncle behind who, as in the novel, interrogates the sky for a rainbow. Yet Imamura leaves out the last sentence that expresses Shigematsu’s doubt and divided mind. This could suggest that the film, as officially released, ends on a more hopeful note than the novel.

There are several elements in the film that disturb this (somewhat) hopeful ending to the officially released version. For one, the repeated rituals of death suggest that radiation disease will continue in its inexorable way to claim victims. Other images add to the overall gloom. A clock explodes in the reenactment scene and later, as Yasuko returns to Hiroshima in a boat, the oarsman picks up another scorched clock in the water showing 8:15, the exact time of the bombing. In the country house Yasuko’s job is to set the grandfather clock each evening at seven when the news is broadcast; it is at this precise moment that Kotaro arrives in a panic to announce the death of Shokichi. In yet another instance, when a minor character arrives home in the village to visit her mother the clock in the home shows the time of 8:15. These film images serve as repeated reminders of the catastrophe and work against what has been criticized as the cultural conservatism of the novel that seeks a bridge across the historical fissure wrought by Hiroshima through ancient ritual, relations to nature, and a patriarchal family system.[28]

In the original ending that was later scrapped, Yasuko’s rejection of her family ties, of her friendship with Yuichi, and indeed of her whole community is much more radical. It expresses the liquidation of human relations and the destruction of community and family ties brought about by the bombs. Yasuko’s transformation into a stone statue then stands as an emblem of what Treat calls the “depersonalized death” of the victims.[29]

With Black Rain we have moved beyond the early phase of reaction to the bomb—a phase characterized at once by the fixed trauma image and heroic attempts to overcome it. Imamura portrays, instead, the psychological struggles of individuals who have lived though the experience and are trying to find continuity in their lives despite the near impossibility of doing so. They are faced with both internal conflicts and external manifestations of rejection and suspicion. In recent decades these issues found renewed resonance with the radiation leaks from the nuclear facilities on Three Mile Island (1979), Chernobyl (1986), and most recently Fukushima (2011).

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]

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 today.


1. I would like to express my gratitude to Dr. Joseph Gerson, Director of Programs and Director of the Peace and Economic Security Program of the American Friends Service Committee in New England, for his gracious assistance on this article, including access to his archives.

2. See, for instance, Gar Alperowitz, Atomic Diplomacy: Hiroshima and Potsdam. New York: Vintage Books, 1965; John Whittier Treat, Writing Ground Zero: Japanese Literature and the Atomic Bomb. Chicago: Univ. of Chicago Press, 1995; and The Nuclear Century: Voices of the Hibakusha of the World. Japan Peace Museum/Japan Confederation of A and H-Bomb Sufferers Organizations. Tokyo : Heiwa no Atorie, 1997.

3. See Dr. Shuntaro Hida, The Day Hiroshima Disappeared: Testimony by a Bombed Doctor (typed ms., Joseph Gerson private collection, American Friends Service Committee New England Regional Office); and “The Day Never to Be Forgotten, (Wasurerarenai anoki): A Collection of Testimonies and Pictures by Sufferers of the A-Bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki,” Kanagawa Atomic Bomb Sufferers Bomb Sufferers Association, 2005; “The Effects of Atomic Bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki,” United States Strategic Bombing Survey, Chapter 2. Web. 23 July 2012. <http://www.anesi.com/ussbs01.htm#teotab>

4. Despite censorship by the U.S. forces, a demonstration for peace was held in Hiroshima on the first anniversary of the A-bomb; the following year the mayor read the first “Peace Declaration” at the festival. See Japanese Broadcasting Corporation, ed. Unforgettable Fire: Pictures Drawn by Atomic Bomb Survivors. New York: Pantheon Books, 1977, 9.

5. See M. Susan Lindee. Suffering Made Real: American Science and the Survivors at Hiroshima. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1994.

6. Joseph Gerson, Empire and the Bomb: How the U.S. Uses Nuclear Weapons to Dominate the World. London: Pluto Press, 2007, 272 ff.

7. J. Samuel Weber, “History, Collective Memory, and the Decision to Use the Bomb,” in Michael J. Hogan, ed. Hiroshima in History and Memory. Cambridge: Cambridge Univ. Press, 1996, 188.

8. For a discussion of censorship in occupied Japan see Yuko Shibata, “Dissociative entanglement: US-Japan atomic bomb discourse by John Hersey and Nagai Takashi,” Inter-Asia Cultural Studies, 13:1 (2012): 122-37.

9. Georges Bataille, “Concerning the Accounts Given by the Residents of Hiroshima,” in Cathy Caruth, ed., Trauma: Explorations in Memory. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins Univ. Press, 1995, 226.

10. The collection of testimonials is an ongoing project of several survivor organizations in Japan. See, for instance, Senji Yamaguchi, co-chair of the Hidankyo organization, published Burnt Yet Undaunted: the verbatim account of Senji Yamaguchi, compiled by Shinji Fujisaki. Japan Confederation of A and H-Bomb Sufferers Organizations, 2002. See also Mikio Kanda, ed., Widows of Hiroshima: The Life Stories of Nineteen Peasant Wives, trans. Taeko Midorikawa. New York: St. Martin’s Press, 1989; and Hachiya Michihiko, M.D., Hiroshima Diary: the Journal of a Japanese Physician, August 6-September 30, 1945, trans. and ed. Warner Wells, M.D. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1955.

11. I would like to thank Yoshiaki Shimizu for this translation, which is closer to Kurosawa’s meaning than the titles by which this film is known in English, Record of a Living Being or I Live in Fear.

12. Cathy Caruth, Trauma: Explorations in Memory. Baltimore: The Johns Hopkins Univ. Press, 1995, 4-5.

13. I am grateful to Dr. Joseph Gerson for this observation.

14. The image occurs in Japanese footage shot by Nippon Eiga Sha under the supervision of Akira Iwasaki. It occurs in the short documentary Hiroshima-Nagasaki, August 1945 produced by Erik Barnouw and Paul Ronder for the Center for Mass Communication at Columbia University Press. The still is courtesy of Harvard Film Archive, Fine Arts Library, Harvard Unviersity; HFA Item #9675. From 16 mm print.

15. Robert J. Lifton, Death in Life: Survivors of Hiroshima. Chapel Hill: Univ. of North Carolina Press, 1991, 464-67; Joan Mellen, The Waves at Genji’s Door: Japan through its Cinema. New York: Pantheon, 1976, 202-206.

16. Noel Burch, To the Distant Observer: Form and Meaning in Japanese Cinema. Berkeley, Univ. of California Press, 1989, 308.

17. Treat, Writing Ground Zero 236.

18. Treat, 239. In his correspondence with the pilot of the lead plane of the Hiroshima bombing, Claude Eatherly, the German philosopher Günter Anders praised him for his subsequent descent into madness. He wrote:

“The fact that you cannot master what you have done is consoling. Because it shows that now…you are making the attempt to catch up with, to realize the magnitude of your acts, the effects of which you then had not realized…this attempt, even if it fails, proves that you have been able to keep your conscience alert […] One could almost say that it is proof of your moral health.”

Burning Conscience: The case of the Hiroshima pilot, Claude Eatherly, told in his letters to Günther Anders. New York: Monthly Review Press, 1962, 2-3.

Mitsuharo Inoue, “The House of Hands,” in Kenzaburo Oe, The Crazy Iris. New York: Grove Press, 1985.

20. Kenzaburo Oe, Hiroshima Notes, trans. David L. Swain and Tashi Yonezawa. New York: Grove Press, 1865, 75 and 35.

21. Treat, 288-99.

22. Masuji Ibuse, Black Rain, trans. John Bester. New York: Kadansha International, 1979, 300.
23. Cathy Caruth, “An Interview with Robert Jay Lifton,” in Caruth, ed., Trauma: Explorations in Memory, 137.

24. See the memoir of Mieko Hara in Children of Hiroshima, ed. Yoichi Fukushima. London: Taylor and Francis, 1981, 75; also quoted in John Dower, “the Bombed: Hiroshima and Nagasaki in Japanese Memory,” in Michael J. Hogan, ed., Hiroshima in History and Memory. Cambridge: Cambridge Univ. Press, 1966, 116.

25. Treat 282.

26. Thierry Jousse, “Entretien avec Akira Kurosawa,” trans. Catherine Cadou, Cahiers du Cinema, 445 (June 1991): 12; quoted in James Goodwin, “Akira Kurosawa and the Atomic Age,” in James Goodwin, ed., Perspectives on Akira Kurosawa. New York: G.K. Hall, 1974, 138.

27. Japanese Broadcasting Corporation (NHK), Unforgettable Fire: Pictures Drawn by Atomic Bomb Survivors. New York: Pantheon, 1997. A drawing by Ito Kanichi represents a woman trapped in a collapsed house, 28; another by Haruko Ogansawara shows victims with seared flesh, 45; one by Tadao Inoue outlines the charred body of a mother and child, 63; and another by Masato Yamashita sketches the charred body of a victim, 104. All the drawings are by hibakusha.

28. Treat 297.

29. Treat 10.

30. Lifton 184; see especially chapter five, “On Being a Hibakusha.”

31. Lifton 175-76.

32. Kiju (Yoshishige) Yoshida, “My Theory of Film: a Logic of Self-Negation,” trans. Patrick Noonan. Review of Japanese Culture and Society (Dec. 2010): 107.

33. Adam Bingham, “Stories written in Sunlight and Water: The Cinema of Yoshida Yoshishige, Part 2—Independence and Independent.” Asian Cinema (Fall/Winter 2010): 281.

34. Oe, Notes 58.

35. Shibata (126) makes a compelling case for the avoidance of closure in Hiroshima narratives—an argument that applies equally well to film.

36. Megumi Iizuka, “A-bomb doctor warns of further Fukushima woes,” The Japan Times Online, July 12, 2012, accessed July 31, 2013, http://info.japantimes.co.jp/text/nn20120712f3.html

37. At the 2013 annual meeting of the College Association in New York City, Professors Yoshiaku Shimizu and Gennifer Weisenfeld organized a session on “Disaster and Creativity” that featured several speakers on Hiroshima and the echoes of the nuclear disaster in Fukushima. I wish to acknowledge the insights I gained from the presentation by Julia Friedman, “Between Awe and Anger: Young Japanese Artists Respond to Tohoku and Fukushima.” It was in listening to her presentation that I learned about the Chim/Pom collective.

38. On Chim/Pom’s exhibition “Real Times,” see the short video
<http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=OTqokIecNhs/>. Web. 18 Feb. 2013.
See also “Art Cannot be Powerless: an interview with Ryuta Ushiro” (a PBS Frontline report on Chim/Pom). 20 and 30 May 2013. Web. 18 Feb. 2013.

39. Emily Taguchi, “Japan’s New Nuclear Generation,” Frontline 26 July 2011. Web. 21 Feb. 2013. <http://www.pbs.org/wgbh/pages/frontline/the-atomic-artists/emily-taguchi/>

40. Lida Bach, “Nuclear Nation,” Kino-Zeit.de. 2 Feb. 2013. Web. 14 Feb. 2013.

41. David Elliott, Fukushima: Impacts and Implications. Basingstoke: Palgrave MacMillan 2013, 80-98.

42. Hiromitsu Toyosaki, “The World’s Hibakusha,” in The Japan Peace Museum/Japan Confederation of A- and H-Bomb Sufferers, The Nuclear Century: Voices of the Hibakusha of the World. Tokyo: Heiwa no Atorie, 1997, 348.

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