Wednesday, February 19, 2014

Children of Hiroshima (原爆の子, 1952)

I know of two Japanese films which are in the public domain. One of them is Akira Kurosawa's Rashomon (羅生門), and the other one is Kaneto Shindo's Children of Hiroshima (原爆の子).

The title Rashomon probably registers recognition to many readers interested in Japan, while Children of Hiroshima is probably lesser known, although there is a good chance that the film's subject can be correctly guessed from the title. The film's Japanese title, 『原爆の子』, translates literally into English as, "Children of the Atom Bomb."


Children of Hiroshima was released in Japan in 1952, seven years after the atomic bombing of the city of Hiroshima in 1945, and one can imagine, even from the easy chair of remoteness, that at that time, memories of the event, and emotions stemming from both, were still raw and easily summoned. The film's director, Kaneto Shindo, himself was a son of Hiroshima.

The film's story follows schoolteacher Takako Ishikawa (played by Nobuko Otawa), as she visits her home town of Hiroshima six years after the atomic bombing. During her visit, she checks up on three of her former kindergarten students who survived the bombing. She finds each of them—and their families—in different states of coping with the consequences of the bombing. She finds both despair and hope, both cold and warm receptions.

But Takako also comes across an old family friend and employee of her father's. Left handicapped and disfigured by the bombing, Iwakichi (played by Osamu Takizawa) lives in abject poverty. Through him, Takako gleans some insight on the plight of at least hundreds of Hiroshima's children who were orphaned by the bombing, among which was Iwakichi's grandson, Taro. Iwakichi finds his remaining reason for living in Taro, and heroically does so, and with the determination that Taro is the one thing that the atom bomb will not take away from him.

The depiction of the moment of the atomic detonation itself and its immediate aftermath was done poetically. The extent to which the horrors could be depicted was perhaps limited by the cinematic technology available at that time—but I nevertheless found it to be an emotionally powerful interpretation of an event whose horror and complexity of consequences naturally make its simultaneous artistic and factual expression difficult.

The Genbaku Dome appeared in many scenes of Children of Hiroshima. Here, Iwakichi takes his place at his usual begging spot.

It is a movie with a violent subject, and which one would naturally expect to depict strong emotions of resentment, bitterness, anger, heartbreak, inconsolable grief, the declaration that war is hell. These are certainly to be found in the movie, but these were like pretexts for what I thought were the overarching themes of the film—themes of kindness and compassion, and hope and rebuilding, which is remarkable. The looming Genbaku Dome (原爆ドーム) is featured prominently in the film, as if to say that, in times of devastating loss, the defining core of the human spirit endures.

That the thought that Takako herself was a victim of the atomic bombing has not occurred to me at all until this point of writing this article, is an indication of the lack of self-pity in Takako's character. She is a kind and compassionate person, but is also mentally and emotionally strong, with a heart that is easily moved but also unflinching. However, she is also young and healthy, for whom, perhaps, hope comes easier, in juxtaposition to the bent and battered character of Iwakichi, who has a more tenuous hold on hope and the future. Takako is alive; Iwakichi is holding on to life through his grandson.

The movie in its entirety can be found on the Internet Archive, but this copy is in less than average condition, and the English subtitles are often cut off. What seems to be a restored version of the film, also with English subtitles, can be found on YouTube. Here are the links:

Children of Hiroshima on YouTube
Children of Hiroshima on the Internet Archive


Related posts:

I have previously written blog posts on the subject of the atomic bombing of Japan. Here are links to those blog posts:

Barefoot Gen by Keiji Nakazawa
The Hiroshima Global Peace Monitor Clock


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