In the shadows of Hiroshima: Director Kurosaki takes on the story of Japan’s own WWII top-secret nuclear arms plan

Editor note: Japan had two different military programs working on developing an atomic bomb. The movie reviewed here only discusses one of the programs. Japan’s attempt to develop nuclear weapons was much more successful than imagined, click here and read What If Japan Had the Atomic Bomb First? For more details.

Review by Kaori Shoji

Gift of Fire (Japanese original title: Taiyo no Ko)” proffers an unsettling view from an old and familiar window. Directed by Hiroshi Kurosaki, the gist of this story set in the summer of 1945, is this: just weeks before Japan’s surrender in WWII, a team of graduate students at Kyoto University were hard at work on the creation of a nuclear bomb. While this piece of information may not be news to many western historians, the majority of the Japanese are bound to feel baffled. For generations, the Japanese were conditioned – by our elders, by the media, by the education system and history itself, to feel that we were the victims of a war that very few in the populace ever wanted to fight. And now a Japanese movie is saying we could have been the perpetrators of the world’s first nuclear bomb attack? That’s an incredibly heavy load to process, and still more to confront. 

After all, Japan had banked the struggle of the postwar years and the rapid growth era that followed it, on Hiroshima and Nagasaki. The horrors that happened on August 6th, 1945 in Hiroshima and then, a mere 72 hours later in Nagasaki, were recounted through generations and revived in the media more times than anyone could count. It was a legacy of suffering, a collective mantle of unspeakable sadness under which the Japanese toiled and labored for decades to come. 
At the same time, the two bombs exonerated the Japanese from having to explain and face up to wartime atrocities – the crimes committed in Korea, China, Singapore and pretty much the entire Asian Pacific Rim. Call it the a-bomb card, pulled out when the Koreans or Chinese got noisy about acknowledgement and reparations for war crimes. And whenever the Japanese people protested against the econo-centric measures of the government that irredeemably polluted oceans and mountains and quashed the livelihoods of  millions of traditional workers. For seventy plus years, the a-bomb card served Japanese politicians, their politics and the national conscience. We suffered enough, now leave us alone. 

But “Gift of Fire” says it may be about time to turn in that card. 

The Kyoto University lab was under close scrutiny by the Imperial Army and the scientists were pressed for results. If and when they succeeded in splitting the atom, the plan was to drop the bomb on San Francisco. The students were plagued by doubts and filled with anxiety, and who can blame them. Nightly air raids, frequent power outages and utter lack of resources prevented their experiments from moving forward when all the while, they were listening to American news on a hand-crafted short wave radio. The Americans were closing in on the Japanese Imperial Army though the propaganda reports from the frontlines said otherwise. “Should we even be doing this, in the comfort of a laboratory? Shouldn’t we be fighting and giving our lives to this country?” says one anguished student, who eventually quits the project to enlist in the Imperial Army. 

The truth was, the Kyoto University team lacked everything to build anything, let alone a weapon of mass destruction. Still, they forge on, fueled by a blind hope that an atomic bomb will change the course of the war or even end it. Besides, says Professor Arakatsu, the helmer of the project: “if we don’t build it the Americans will. And if the Americans don’t get there first the Soviets will. Why do you think this war started in the first place? It’s because the world is in a race to procure energy resources. Whoever gets control of the energy, gains control over the world.”  

By saying that, Arakatsu has shifted the concept of war from ideology and nationalism to science and technology. Fittingly, “Gift of Fire” is mostly devoid of sentiment and righteousness, preferring instead to sanctify the scientist and all that he stands for. In Arakatsu’s laboratory, scientific advancement is a religion, and the god at the altar is Albert Einstein. The highest prayer of course, is E=mc2. The film marks the first time a Japanese film has addressed the atomic bomb from a scientific standpoint, and bringing in an American voice to the proceedings. Kurosaki persuaded Peter Stormare to appear in a voice-only role that defends, honors and ultimately glorifies the scientific mission. 

Perhaps that voice belongs to Shu (Yuya Yagira) who is the most committed member in Arakatsu’s lab. Shu is responsible for procuring the much-needed uranium for their experiments, and turns to a local potter for his meager supply. The potter used to make beautiful things, but now he only makes funeral urns. “A lot of people dying,” says the potter matter-of-factly to Shu, pointing to the rows and rows of small white urns turned out in his kiln that day. Shu can only nod, bow and make his exit with the uranium powder stashed in his rucksack. Shu knows that Japan will hurtle toward a terrible defeat unless they can build the bomb before the Americans. At the same time he knows their chances of making that happen are practically zilch. Yet the thought of giving up never crosses his mind. A stubborn work-ethic and an obsessive regard for science dictates Shu’s actions and his MO, like the rest of his team, is to ‘ganbaru (do the best they can)’ until they drop. 

Director/writer Hiroshi Kurosaki is a seasoned television director, best known for his work on the NHK morning drama series “Hiyokko, (2017)” which means ‘youngster.’ Kurosaki has a flair for portraying youth and innocence under duress. “Hiyokko” was set in the post war years, with a young female protagonist (Kasumi Arimura) searching for her missing father in Tokyo. Arimura teams up with Kurosaki again for “Gift of Fire” as she plays Setsu, who is Shu’s possible love interest. Setsu, perhaps as a nod to our times, is not the typical docile young woman of wartime Japan. In one scene she lectures Shu and his brother Hiroyuki (played by the late Haruma Miura who committed suicide last summer. The film marks his final screen appearance) about their tunnel vision, exhorting them to look beyond the war and envision a future without violence. In the post-screening press conference Kurosaki said: “I wanted to portray what a young woman must have felt in the final days before the surrender. She’s young and has an intense desire to live and experience life, but death is always there.” 

Gift of Fire” is not without redemption. What permeates the otherwise dark and spartan narrative is the sheer innocence of the characters, especially Shu and Hiroyuki. In their separate ways, the brothers seek closure to a war that had come to define their identifites – Shu by creating the atomic bomb, and Hiroyuki by flying a plane right into an American warship. Defeat may be imminent but neither of them are about to surrender peacefully. “They made mistakes, they’re not heroes,” said Kurosaki. “They are ordinary young men, blundering on and doing the best they can.” Sadly that’s never enough to right a ship gone horribly awry. 
END 

The 70 Year Fallout: A Lament for Hiroshima and Nagasaki

Editor’s note: This year it will be 70 years since the atomic bomb was dropped on Hiroshima. What is not widely known is that Japan was working on building its own atomic bomb, and if they had been faster, many believe that Imperial Japan would have used it. It does not lesson the horror of what was done but it should be noted. War is a horrible thing and it seems like it would be a tragedy to ever see Japan take up the mantle of war again. And the spectre of nuclear energy unleashed by the bomb is something that haunts this country as well, something that maybe should be abandoned as well. For a perspective on what the bomb meant to Japan and the Japanese people, Kaori Shoji, writes on it eloquently. 

 

A baby born in in the year the Japanese surrendered in WWII – the same year two atom bombs were dropped on Hiroshima and Nagaaki respectively – has turned 70 years old. During these 7 decades, the two cities had known starvation, struggle and the kind of recovery the majority of the Japanese thought was impossible.

DSCF0354

On August 6th, 1945, above Hiroshima City, American bomber pilots first scattered flyers from their planes that warned all civilians to evacuate the area. The civilians – consisting mainly of hungry women, children and the elderly, picked up the flyers but couldn’t make out the words. For the past 6 years the Japanese military had banned all use of English words like “radio” and “milk” (not that the majority of the public had access to such luxuries) and drummed it into the Japanese public that the Americans and British were ogres or beasts.

A short while later, a huge mushroom cloud burst in the sky and in what seemed like a matter of seconds, the entire city went up in flames. Charred bodies were everywhere, but those who died instantly were better off than those that survived – suffering from horrendous burns and a raging thirst, they died in unspeakable agony within hours or days or weeks, depending on their exposure to flames and radiation.

DSCF0361

It took some time for the news to travel up and down the archipelago. In Tokyo, people heard that a terrible mega-bomb had been dropped on Hiroshima, but they were too busy running for their lives like cockroaches, under firebombs that exploded in the sky and razed entire districts in a matter of hours. My grandmother, who was in middle school at the time, said that 24 hours after the a-bomb dropped on Hiroshima, people were already whispering about it on the streets but “we were too desperate to pay much attention.” Three days later on August 9th, another atomic bomb was dropped on Nagasaki. On August 15th, the Emperor of Japan went on the radio and announced to his people that after years of everyone having to “endure the un-endurable,” the war had finally ended.

DSCF0331

The baby is now 70, and s/he has turned into a grandparent. This baby has only a sketchy memory of the terrible years after the war. By the time this baby grew into a teenager and graduated from high school, s/he had enough to eat and clothes on their back. They could look forward to a solid if not a personally happy future, with job security and a house in the suburbs. Their lives were made infinitely easier than their parents,’ with appliances, gadgets and the all-important, sheerly reliable Japanese car. At the back of their minds however, lies a hard nugget of anxiety and a deep sense of sadness. Take for example, the case of Shizuko Ohnishi, whose father died in Hiroshima’s nuclear bomb attack 2 months before she was born. Her pregnant mother had been staying with relatives in the mountains, 20 kilometers from the city and subsequently been spared. “Or else I never would have been born,” said Ms. Ohnishi quietly. She still visits the city’s hospital – called the “Genbaku Byouin (Nuclear Bomb Hospital) that treats victims from 70 years ago. “I wasn’t born yet, but my mother was exposed to radiation and she died in her 50s from thyroid cancer. It follows that I would go the same way though I didn’t expect to outlive her this long. I consider the last 20 years as a bonus I don’t really deserve.”

DSCF0336

Ms. Ohnishi’s words are in a way, typical of those who have been through “that day.” The Japanese feel they are to blame – for Hiroshima and Nagasaki, for the over 800,000 civilian deaths, the misery and poverty during the postwar years. They wanted to sweep all the reminders of a past blackened by death and destruction, right under some heavy futons which is why not a whole lot of Japanese born between the 1930s, right up until the 1970s, are willing to discuss or dwell on that period – especially not with foreigners, not to mention Americans. During these 7 decades US-Japan relations have been a defining factor behind Japanese policy, economy and export industry. It has brought us among other things, the Peace Constitution and Tokyo Disneyland. So hey – better to pretend all that stuff just never happened, right? This logic is in the same ballpark with the logic that over the years, has banned manga and literature depicting the bomb attacks. The latest to come under restriction is the classic manga “Hadashi no Gen (Barefoot Gen)” series by Keiji Nakazawa. Several school boards in Japan have taken it out of circulation, ostensibly because it contains “discriminatory language” including “kichigai (moron, or crazy person).” WTF, big time. Still, this sort of thing keeps happening, precisely because the victims say things like they don’t deserve to live until 70.

DSCF0389

In the meantime, Hiroshima has moved on from becoming a blackened, barren land to a glittering urban epicenter, flush with money and guarded by Japan’s most efficient regional police force. The city’s symbol remains the Atomic Dome – the former “Industry Endorsement Center” built in the early 20th century. It was one of Hiroshima’s first western style buildings made of concrete, and equipped with a domed ceiling which most Japanese had never seen. In the aftermath of the a-bombing, 90% of the main facade was ripped apart by flames but the dome structure remained.

DSCF0356

To the rest of the world, the dome became a symbol of mankind’s first deployment of the nuclear bomb. To the survivors in Hiroshima, it represented a mega-scar that wouldn’t go away. Months after the bombing, the more audacious types gathered at the dome, bared their torsoes to show their burn marks and posed next to grinning American Occupation soldiers who loved to take photos and send them back to their families. This brought them a few dollars and in those days, a few dollars was wealth. Others picked up bent, burned and twisted pieces of steel or rubble, human bones and the like, and sold them to the soldiers as souvenirs. But these people disappeared in the early 1950s as Hiroshima concentrated its efforts on looking forward and marching the march of the rapid growth economy. It was during this time too, that Hiroshima’s mayoral office debated on whether to keep the dome going or to tear it down. It brought back memories too terrible to contemplate, but on the other hand, Germany had turned Auschwitz into a museum. Shouldn’t they like, do the same?

DSCF0370

In the midst of all this, the survivors in Nagasaki took second place. They were like the back-up chorus, always several feet from center stage. Hiroshima now has a world-wide repute but Nagasaki less so, and you can see it in the vastly differing ways the two cities have dealt with the past. Nagasaki has remained faithful to its illustrious roots as Japan’s one and only port open to the outside world (actually just mainland China, Korea and the Netherlands) during the Tokugawa Shogunate, and a safe haven for Japan’s “Secret Christians” who went into hiding for 3 centuries after Christianity was banned in the late 1500s. Until Japan officially opened her doors to the West in 1865, these people built clandestine altars and carved statues of the Virgin Mary, always in fear of being discovered, tortured and impaled on the end of a spear until dead, as mandated by law. When the bomb was dropped, it first struck the Nagasaki City Prison before spreading out over the entire city, and destroyed Nagasaki’s iconic Urakami Cathedral, among everything else. In the Cathedral neighborhood, there were an estimated 14,000 Catholic inhabitants. Over 8000 died from the bomb and Nagasaki considers the victims to be martyrs.

DSCF0279

Today, Nagasaki remains somewhat provincial and markedly more laid-back than Hiroshima. Urakami Cathedral has been rebuilt and the city has maintained close ties with the Vatican. Apart from commemorating the a-bomb’s 70th year anniversary, Nagasaki is celebrating 150 years since the official revival of Christianity. There’s not much here in the way of industry, despite the fact that Nagasaki was the site of Japan’s very first trading company (Kameyama Shachu). The police and yakuza forces – so rampant in Hiroshima, just doesn’t have the same sway here. Everything about it feels retro and exotic, like the slabs of whale meat on display in the local markets as if no one here has heard of Greenpeace. The local celebrity is actor Masaharu Fukuyama and local legendary figures include Thomas Glover, reputed to be a masonic spy for the British government when he came over here in 1859.

DSCF0267

Nagasaki’s Peace Park feels very different from Hiroshima’s – more formal and less a part of the daily fabric, though ice cream vendors call out to American military folks out for a jaunt in Nagasaki from the naval base in nearby Sasebo. “Gee, that’s sad,” said a blonde woman to her husband, as they looked over the bomb replica at the museum, and reading the story of a little boy who showed up at a crematorium with a dead baby strapped to his back. Over the years, surveys have consistently shown that over 50% of Americans think the bomb attacks were “necessary” and “not wrong.” No American in government has ever issued an apology.

DSCF0357

The Dome in Hiroshima is undergoing major repairs, in time for the Olympics and an expected tidal wave of foreign visitors. It resides in the Peace Park, which is a pretty piece of urban greenery where gaijin tourist couples laugh and frolic and take selfies, right in front of the Dome. Local children scream and play while their mothers stand gossiping. Seventy years has gone by and the area surrounding the Dome has shifted from war atrocity memorial to a somewhat banal city park where a white construction sheet covers a small dome structure. It’s hard to say whether this is a good thing. It probably is, though that very thought clogs my throat like the ghost of a sobbing voice.

DSCF0386 DSCF0387

by Kaori Shoji