MICHAEL H. PRICE: From ‘Barefoot Gen’ to ‘White Light/Black Rain’
Steven Okazaki’s documentary feature White Light/Black Rain: The Destruction of Hiroshima and Nagasaki will arrive August 6 over the HBO premium-cable network, marking the 62nd anniversary of the arrival of thermonuclear warfare. The film’s harrowing impact has been a matter of record since its in-competition run during last January’s Sundance Film Festival in Utah.
Though hardly the first of its kind, White Light/Black Rain proves a timely and emphatic reminder. It possesses a sharp consistency with the pioneering Barefoot Gen manga-turned-anime tales of Keiji Nakazawa, and with Masuji Ibuse’s novel Black Rain, as filmed in 1989 by Shohei Imamura. Okazaki’s film brings full-circle, East-meets-West, a persistent question raised by one history-in-the-making Hollywood epic of 1947, The Beginning or the End, which traces the Manhattan Project to a climax at Hiroshima and Nagasaki. (In its very title, The Beginning or the End had declared thermonuclear weaponry a topic of perpetual relevance. Further outcroppings since then have included 1982’s The Atomic Café, a pageant of A-bomb boosterism propaganda; and 1995’s The Plutonium Circus, concerning the Texas town most thoroughly identified with nuclear “preparedness” as a tax base.)
White Light/Black Rain finds its more persuasive voice in interviews with survivors of the bombings, illuminated by a gauntlet of harrowing archival footage. Its appreciation requires context, lest White Light/Black Rain be mistaken for an unprecedented re-examination. Its nearer origins lie in the graphic novels of Nakazawa, whose first-hand account of Hiroshima – he professes to have noticed the approach, followed by “a million flashbulbs going off at once” – yielded two Barefoot Gen animated movies of the 1980s. Nakazawa has aligned himself with Steven Okazaki since the 2005 documentary The Mushroom Club, a short-film stage-setter for White Light/Black Rain.
The bombings have amounted to fodder, both imaginative and factual, for the American motion-picture industry since well before that turning-point of World War II. In a time of reciprocal hostilities, the U.S. entertainment industry felt a duty to commit propaganda as a function of advocating an any-means-necessary end to the war.
WWII, of course, no more ended with the bombings than it can be said to have begun at any absolute moment. One war bleeds into another, like the ocean ignoring its explorers’ charted boundaries, over the greater sweep of history. It is a simpler matter to cinch the moment at which Hollywood – itself an occupied territory at the time, given the influential presence of the armed forces’ motion-picture production bureaucracy at studios large and small – began anticipating a bombing run over Japan as a matter of meeting the Axis powers’ aggression in decisive terms.
That moment occurs in a since-obscure film called China’s Little Devils (1945), which peaks with an airborne raid upon Tokyo. Its date of release, not quite three months before Hiroshima, lends the picture a harrowing resonance that its author, the Old Left playwright-and-agitator Samuel Ornitz, probably had not intended. The point was, rather, to suggest an outraged response, triggered by the depiction of a Japanese assault upon a Chinese orphanage. China’s Little Devils stops short of nuclear devastation, although it suggests an instinctive awareness of the Manhattan Project on Ornitz’ part. The movie came from an upstart low-budget studio, representing a corporate-Hollywood underclass that has blazed trails all along for the larger, more cautious, companies to follow.
The first film to acknowledge Hiroshima and Nagasaki came, likewise, from Hollywood’s low-rent sector. Shadow of Terror (1945) had started out as a generic Axis-buster adventure, with a top-secret explosive device as the maguffin at risk of falling into enemy hands. The real-world deployment of the A-bomb took place while Shadow of Terror was approaching completion, and the studio responded by ordering a rewrite to climax the tale with Hiroshima, incorporating U.S. government footage of a bomb test in New Mexico. Your Tax Dollars and Mine, at work in the special-effects department.
Not until 1947 would the Manhattan Project become the essence of a commercial motion picture, with big-time MGM Pictures’ The Beginning or the End – a film that addresses both the immediate patriotic “good war” impulse and the broader implications, complete with a High Mass Blessing of the Enola Gay’s mission. The Japanese film industry rallied in 1954 to explore nuclear warfare in allegorical terms: Inoshiro Honda’s Gojira (better known as Godzilla, and grimmer by far than most people will assume) imagines a legendary monster as the embodiment of the atomic bomb.
Such back-story elements are crucial to an understanding of White Light/Black Rain: The Destruction of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, which offers concise and nightmarish coverage as a cautionary reminiscence.
Okazaki traces the history of the bomb’s development, then speaks with representatives of the American military and scientific establishments. The film concentrates upon Japanese survivors. They relate their circumstances with a jarring immediacy, many leaving the impression that survival might not have been preferable to oblivion. A closing segment draws upon footage that many viewers may find unbearably intense – “powerfully unpleasant,” as the show-business tradepaper Variety summed up the Sundance showing.
Perhaps most troubling is the state of unawareness exhibited by a number of modern-day Japanese youngsters when Okazaki inquires as to the implications of Aug. 6, 1945. Their blank stares convey a social amnesia as terrifying as the deployment of the bomb itself. The film, in turn, proceeds to propose–to administer–a remedy in the form of a cathartic reminder, undiluted by equivocation or political theorizing.
Detailed coverage of key wartime and postwar propaganda films can be found in Michael H. Price’s Forgotten Horrors Vols. 3 and 4, from Midnight Marquee Press at www.midmar.com. Price’s new-movie commentaries appear weekly at www.fortworthbusinesspress.com.