White Light/Black Rain – A-Bomb Survivors Speak

Steven Okazaki’s film White Light/Black Rain: the Destruction of Hiroshima and Nagasaki could well be the most gruelling documentary I have ever had to sit through.

I attended the August 5th screening of the film (in English) at the Hiroshima Peace Memorial Museum. Halfway through the screening and the sheer unplumbable depths of suffering that the survivors had gone through… no, are still going through every day of their lives, seemed to billow out of the screen like ectoplasm and suffocate the whole audience. The tension and discomfort was palpable. I doubt there are many who could watch every single second without flinching or averting their eyes. I certainly averted mine at that point in the film where the disfigured pulp around the eye socket of one poor wretch of a survivor is pulled back with some ghastly medical instrument.

Steven Okazaki has done both the victims of the atomic bombings and the modern world a great service by enabling a handful of survivors to convey to us something from the heart of the horror of what was inflicted upon them. Such is the strength and merit of this film that even for seasoned gaijin who live in Hiroshima and who have been to the museum, read the books, seen the documentaries and heard survivors’ stories from our older students White Light/Black Rain retains all of its power to shock, revolt and induce pity as if we had never heard of Hiroshima before.

The reason for that, I think, is that the guts of the film consists of the survivors’ testimonies. Steven Okazaki did not get in their way with his own political agenda. In an interview Okazaki explains:

I have a problem with films about Hiroshima and Nagasaki—not that I particularly disagree with anyone – but, if I know everything’s going to be tailored, if everything I see is going to be in service to just telling us that war’s bad and bombs kill people, but not present us with a film experience, to get a sense of what happened, to get a sense of what people went through and to feel it, my feeling is it doesn’t really matter what the message is if it’s boring. My job is to tell the story and try to tell it in an interesting way so people will watch it.

Steven Okazaki

The film opens with some interviews of young Tokyoites, none of whom seems to know what had happened in August 1945. “I’m no good at history,” says one girl. “An earthquake?” volunteers another. However, it was pointed out to me that had they been asked “What happened in the twentieth Year of the Showa Era?” – the twentieth year of Emperor Hirohito’s inglorious reign – then they might have recognised the date and responded appropriately:

“Ah so desu ne. The war ended not necessarily to Japan’s advantage.”
If the young be ignorant the government and people have been complicit. What emerges from the testimonies of the survivors is a story of discrimination and prejudice at the hands of the authorities and local communities. There is a feeling that the government is simply waiting for them to die. It is telling that NONE of the survivors who spoke in the film lives in Hiroshima today.

What then of the American voices in the film? Again, Steven Okazaki let them speak for themselves without forcing them to attempt to justify what they had been a party to. The most forthright of the speakers was the navigator of the Enola Gay, Theodor “Dutch” van Kirk, who has consistently defended the bombing; but it is worth mentioning that his most telling comment comes towards the end of the documentary when he affirms that anybody who had seen the bomb would not (as some “jerks” who have not do) idly advocate its use in America’s petty wars around the globe.

Not the most horrifying or painful, but certainly the most squirmily uncomfortable moment was footage from This Is Your Life in which the co-pilot of the Enola Gay, Captain Robert Lewis meets the Revd. Kiyoshi Tanimoto from Hiroshima and his family who had been in Hiroshima on 6th August. The upbeat pace of the show clashes with the awkwardness of the situation. Yet, I have just discovered, the encounter had a profound effect upon one of the participants, Koko Tanimoto-Kondo.

There is much else to say, but much of it has been said elsewhere already and this blog entry has taken me far longer to write than any other; that is partly due to the severity and magnitude of the subject and partly because every time I seek out a name or a fact I end up riveted to the computer screen reading and reading deep into the night.

David Hurley