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:: Nuclear Weapons History Pre Cold War Hiroshima and Nagasaki

Still Surviving Hiroshima

by Hugh Gusterson, August 2,2007

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"I've come to realize that the reason I'm alive is to tell people what happened, so they'll understand," says Kiyoko Imori, the only one of 620 students in her school to survive the Hiroshima bombing. Steven Okazaki interviewed more than 100 survivors of the bombing for his haunting film White Light/Black Rain, which premieres Monday, August 6, on HBO. The film features clips from interviews with thirteen of the survivors as well as four Americans on the planes that dropped the bombs.

The two bombs dropped on Japan in August 1945 had a destructive force that stretches the limits of human imagination. Creating temperatures of 9,000 degrees Fahrenheit and winds of 1,000 miles per hour, they killed about 210,000 people immediately. Another 160,000 are estimated to have died over the years from illnesses caused by the radioactive "black rain" that followed. That adds up to about the population of Miami today. Gone.

After the war, the survivors, one of whom bitterly describes herself as a "guinea pig," were studied but denied treatment by U.S. doctors, though a handful were brought to the United States for free plastic surgery. Many worry that they have passed on genetic mutations to subsequent generations. Sumiteru Taniguchi, a teenage mail carrier on August 6, 1945, takes off his shirt and matter-of-factly invites the viewer to look closely at the burns on his arm and back, the ribs fused to skin, and bones so brittle they break if he coughs too hard. As a child being treated for burns, the pain was so awful that he begged the doctors to kill him. "I've shown you my wounds because I want you to know this can't happen again," he says.

Okazaki's film, made with a Japanese-U.S. production team, evokes the atomic bombings and their aftermath by interweaving such interview material with newsreel clips, survivors' paintings of the firestorm, and long-suppressed archival footage of the aftermath. There is no narrator, but there is a moodily atmospheric soundtrack in the style of "This American Life." Some of the images in the middle of the film are very hard to look at, unless you're a pathologist, but it's important we not look away from what was done in our name.

"I can't describe what I witnessed. I don't have the words. It's like when you burn a fish on the grill. That's what they looked like," a survivor recalls. One of the burned fish, a woman now reconstructed by plastic surgery, describes her father peeling her charred face away from her head with scissors. Another recalls looking at a woman whose body had been burned beyond recognition and realizing from the gold tooth that it was her mother. As she and her sister reached out, their mother crumbled to ashes before their eyes. "This happened 60 years ago, but I'll never forget it," she says quietly.

Okazaki slips between such survivor accounts and the testimony of four Americans on the planes that bombed Hiroshima and Nagasaki. The Japanese and Americans in the film--victims and executioners--are irrevocably linked by the bombings, but their narratives of what connects them are surreally divergent. The disconnection between their perspectives is as unsettling as the images of dead and disfigured bodies. While the survivors tell deeply personal and cinematically vivid stories of indescribable destruction on the ground with an arresting stillness, the Americans seem never to have descended psychologically from the altitude at which they overflew the cities they destroyed. (The one exception is the Enola Gay copilot who tears up when he meets a Hiroshima survivor in a 1950s TV show clip.)

Harold Agnew, who went on to become director of the Los Alamos National Laboratory, where the Bomb was developed, laughs slightly as he says, "I wrote in my notebook, 'It went off. It really did!'" Explaining that he simply wanted to win the war, he adds, "No sympathy, no regrets." Theodore Van Kirk, the navigator, saying he was proud "we dropped it on time, on target," tells the viewer he "never had a nightmare, never had a dream on this particular subject. Never had a nightmare, period." Such banal serenity is disturbing.

White Light/Black Rain comes at an opportune moment. Arms control experts are newly concerned that, at a time when 400,000 Hiroshimas wait in storage in today's nuclear stockpiles, a U.S. city will go the way of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, destroyed by nuclear terrorists. Meanwhile the last Hiroshima veterans--both those who dropped the Bomb and those who endured it--are passing from this world, leaving behind only the archival shadow of their experience. All this at a time when our ability to think about Hiroshima feels stuck: In 1995, the last time the United States tried to think seriously about Hiroshima, outraged veterans, politicians, and pundits forced the cancellation of a Smithsonian exhibit on the atomic bombings in Washington, D.C., rather than allow the public to know what professional historians have to say on this matter; and only last month, Japanese Defense Minister Fumio Kyuma was forced to resign for speaking the unspeakable in Japan--that the bombing of Hiroshima might have been justified.

White Light/Black Rain dramatizes the feeling of being stuck through an inventive visual device: Many of the survivors are shown standing immobile in a public place, clutching a photo of themselves shortly before the Bomb split their life in two, and the camera slowly zooms in on the juxtaposed images of the person that was, now miniaturized, and the person that is, while pedestrians stream by all around. This posed immobility amidst the flow of life conveys as much as any verbal testimony that, for the survivors, it is always August 1945.

In their own way, Americans are frozen in time with the survivors. If the survivors are inexorably pulled back, as if by a force of historical gravity, to that moment when the splitting of the atom split history, Americans seem to be frozen by a refusal to look afresh at what was done in their name. The 1995 Smithsonian exhibit, timed for the fiftieth anniversary of the bombings, was scrapped because it included a Japanese schoolgirl's charred lunch box, photographs of cooked and disfigured bodies, and a window into the discussions of professional historians. Some of these historians argue that it is not true that a million U.S. soldiers would have died in a land invasion of Japan, as Secretary of War Henry L. Stimson later claimed; that the Japanese would have surrendered soon without either invasion or the Bomb; that the second bomb, dropped on Nagasaki, was gratuitous and unnecessary; that the bombing was as much a message to the Soviets to behave themselves as a way to end the war with Japan; or that the architects of the Bomb pushed for careerist reasons to see their invention used.

Critics have accused these historians of "revisionism." This is a curious accusation, since revisionism is the job description of the historian. If revisionism were not allowed, what would historians do? As new documents become available, and as the distance of time enables new perspective, historians are supposed to enrich our national conversation by asking new questions and revising the past. Otherwise our memory of the past, and thus our understanding of the present, is cryogenically frozen and the heartbeat of national conversation falters.

Filmmakers, like historians, work to help us see anew. White Light/Black Rain neither explains nor judges the bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. Okazaki, an American of Japanese descent, simply asks us to look closely, unflinchingly at what was done, and to accept the witness of the survivors in the twilight of their lives. "All this pain we carry in our hearts and in our bodies, it must end with us," says Sakue Shimohira. Until we can look at the schoolgirl's charred lunch box, until we can take in the suffering of the survivors, our defense of Hiroshima--if we still want to make one--will be dishonest. And until we look at what these weapons do as unflinchingly as Okazaki's survivors look into his camera, they will not be able to die in peace, knowing that their message was heard.