Sekigawa, Hideo. 1953. Hiroshima. Feature Film.
Hiroshima begins with a scene in a middle school classroom in 1953 where students’ misunderstandings of radiation and leukemia have led to discrimination against victims. By foregrounding issues of discrimination and the lack of governmental support for survivors in the classroom, the film’s pedagogic aim is pronounced. As a result, the extended second act of the film that portrays the actual atomic bomb attack resonates that much more poignantly as a historical frame for contemplation. Especially in Japan following the Fukushima nuclear disaster, the significance of addressing the dangers and prejudices that face people of the affected areas and questions about natural habitat recovery seem all the more relevant.
After the classroom, the films shifts back in time to scenes of pre-bomb wartime life in Hiroshima. People are eking out a stark but seemingly harmonious existence despite a scarcity of basic goods. Suddenly, with thunderous impact of image and sound, the screen screams white and then falls to a smoldering blackness. For the next grueling hour, the film attempts to show the chaos and magnitude of the tragedy in the days that followed. In gritty black and white images, we see the often-futile search for loved ones and get a sense of the sheer numbers of people lost that day, and later to radiation sickness in the months that followed. By emphasizing the processes of recovery itself, such as panic and skepticism toward whether life could be revived there at all, the director Sekihara Hideo deconstructs certain stigmas that followed the bomb, reintroducing biological and humanistic aspects of the struggle.
Financed by the teachers union of Hiroshima, Sekigawa’s Hiroshima includes thousands of nuclear attack survivors as extras in a vivid depiction of the events surrounding August 6, 1945. Both this film and Shindo Kaneto’s 1952 Children of Hiroshima are based on a collection of stories by child survivors of the attack, “Children of Atomic Bomb” (edited by Osada Arata). However, whereas Shindo attempts to represent the trauma of the event through post-disaster reflection, Sekihara’s film is a more didactic and sustained representation of the event itself.
Overall, the film is an early indictment of the government’s mistreatment of radiation victims, an issue that would spark nationwide attention by the mid-1950s. Through the detailed exegesis of the everyday anxieties involved in recovery, such as waiting for doctor’s diagnoses or doubting whether plants would ever sprout from the scorched earth, we are left with the message that life returns even in the face of destruction. Hiroshima’s reach and influence may have been overshadowed at the time of its release by Shindo’s film, but its value as both a historical record and lesson for a post-Fukushima world gives it a second life today. The film proves to be a powerful representation of historic trauma and serves as a reminder of the ways in which victims of nuclear tragedy sought — and continue to seek — understanding, support, and reconciliation.
-Kenneth Masaki Shima