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POST-WAR JAPAN: The films of Shindo, Kurosawa and Honda| Arghya Dey & Tasnim Nazifa

Arghya Dey & Tasnim Nazifa

Children of Hiroshima (1952)

Kaneto Shindo’s docu-fiction Children of Hiroshima has a strong anti-war message and is often as highly regarded as the other anti-war masterpieces like Nobi (directed by Kon Ichikawa) and Ningen No Joken (directed by Masaki Kobayashi), two of the most artistic representations of the futile circle of attack and retaliation called war. But while the latter films are more concerned about the immediate act of war, the horrors, faced as well as inflicted by the Japanese, and the subsequent disillusionment that comes with a war so prolonged, Shindo’s casts an unflinching eye on the aftermath of the Second World War, when the dust had settled and the smoke had thinned. In this film we see the wreckage that the war has left in its wake as it refuses to become memory.

A highly sought-after art director and apprentice to Kenzo Mizoguchi in the 1930s, Shindo made a name for himself—at first, as a screenwriter, before working with the likes of the immensely versatile Kon Ichikawa of Tokyo Olympiad and The Burmese Harp fame, and with the New Wave titan Seijun Suzuki (director of Youth of the Beast and Tokyo Drifter). In the later years Shindo founded one of Japan’s first independent production houses along with his wife and muse Nobuko Otowa, a figure who would go on to be featured in several of Shindo’s key films. Shindo began to direct films that are political in nature and focused on the working class, the high point of which was his art-house classic masterpiece The Naked Island, a Sisyphean depiction of the cyclical hardships of rural agricultural life. Children of Hiroshima, commissioned by the Japanese Teachers’ Union, at the time of its release faced a lot of criticism, as it is not overtly critical of the American military. Today it has earned the status of a definitive anti-war film with a profound historical significance.

A kindergarten teacher makes a visit to Hiroshima a few years after the city was ravaged by the atom bomb. Through her eyes we see a city that until not very long ago used to be like any other city, now wrapped in a fog of misery. The past has not loosened its grip on the present. The war, the irreparable loss it brought has not yet been neatly shelved into the racks of memory. They stride along hand in hand with the daily routine of life, very rarely failing to remind and haunt the inhabitants.

Shindo’s later works like The Naked Island, Kuroneko and Onibaba are much more bleaker and cynical. Children of Hiroshima, in contrast, has a humanistic appeal to it. One can also see the traces of the visual aesthetics that went on to define his later films, especially in some of the interior shots where he displays his mastery over light and shadow. One instance of where his early flashes of brilliance can be seen is a long shot of a house slowly catching fire with smoke seeping out of the windows and crevices—a shot that would later attain perfection and refinement in his art-house horror film Kuroneko.

Children of Hiroshima is a film of collective grief; it lays bare the half-healed wounds. But there is a hope, however slim, of recovery, a sign of life stumbling on, though riddled with regrets despite the devastating events.

I Live in Fear (1955)

Ten long years had passed since the atomic bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. I Live in Fear would be the last time Kurosawa would root his film in the haunting atmosphere of post–World War II Japan. Kurosawa begins the film with Japanese people engrossed in their daily routine— the purposeful march of the office-goers and the women out for shopping, the roads congested with cars and bicycles, people getting in and out of trams—a run-of-the-mill day in a nondescript city somewhere in Japan. But beneath that collective nonchalance lies, deeply rooted in their consciousness, a fear of the repetition of the attacks on Hiroshima and Nagasaki. Kurosawa explores this fear in the movie through the character of Nakajima (one of Toshiro Mifune’s most versatile and stunning performances), a man so consumed by fear and paranoia that he seems to be not merely an individual in extreme panic, but a manifestation of the anxiety and dread of the entire Japanese populace in general.

Nakajima’s rather large family petitions the family court to mark him financially irresponsible because of his recent behaviours. Dreading a second nuclear disaster, he had begun the construction of an underground structure in the North, a project he soon abandoned after hearing about a potential attack from that direction. This has cost the family a considerable amount of money. But his more recent actions are understandably increasingly intolerable to his family that has forced them to take the matter to a third party—Nakajima wants to relocate his entire family (including his mistresses and their children) to what according to him is the safest place on earth, Brazil. Mifune as Nakajima is a gruff, obstinate old man with a way of dismissing others’ opinions with a sharp rebuke and a vigorous wave of his hand-fan. Beneath his scowling face is a frail old man, terrified of another war, another parade of the fragility of life. His desperation and fear reaches a fevered pitch towards the end when he sets his foundry alight so that his sons and daughters have nothing to stay for in Japan and accompany him to Brazil.

If Nakajima is the manifestation of the collective magnitude of fear of a calamitous and ungodly cause in the Japanese consciousness, Dr Nakada, a dentist acting as one of the court mediators, is the coherent individual voice moving dutifully through the normal routine of life, albeit with a part of him forever on the lookout for a possible nuclear attack. Kurosawa juxtaposes the manic energy of Nakajima with the calculated dejection of Nakada, effectively representing an inherent fixation of the Japanese people on the apocalyptic events of 1945.

Gojira (1954)

Two years after Japan regained its independence following the San Francisco Peace Treaty, Toho (the most popular and prolific of Japanese film studios) released two films that would prove to be highly influential not only in Japanese Cinema, but in world cinema as a whole. One was Akira Kurosawa’s samurai epic Seven Samurai and the other was Ishiro Honda’s Gojira. Both have become representatives of their respective genres. It is also quite interesting to note that both Honda and Kurosawa used to be neighbours and they remained lifelong friends.

Susan Sontag (the great American art critic) in the beginning of her seminal essay ‘The Imagination of Disaster’ comments on the standardized plots of monster and sci-fi films. At the first glance, Ishiro Honda’s Gojira does not seem any different than the numerous science fiction/monster/disaster films that were popular during the 40s and 50s. But what makes it different and superior than the other films of this extremely popular genre is the socio-political commentary it provides and the way it deals with contemporary issues that plagued Japan after the Second World War.

Gojira was a direct reaction against the trauma Japan faced during the second world war and also the numerous nuclear devices tested in Bikini Atoll whose radiation eventually affected a number of Japanese fishermen, some of them later succumbing to slow, painful deaths due to the effects of the radiation. As David Kalat, the writer of A Critical History and Filmography of Toho’s Godzilla Series, puts it, “This isn’t science fiction. It isn’t even fiction.” Gojira is rather a depiction of real horrific events that would continue to haunt the Japanese throughout the 20th century, but with a thin, almost transparent sheen of fiction.

It is against this historical background of superpowers arming themselves to the teeth while the uncertainties of the Cold War was at its worst that Kayama Shigeru (an author of detective thrillers) wrote the original story of Gojira. Tanaka Tamoyuki, the producer of Gojira, initially had this idea of making a film about a gigantic monster that emerges from 20,000 fathoms below the sea. Tanaka modified Kamaya’s original story into a more realistic plot and made Honda the film’s director and Eiji Tsuburaya the special effects director. The titular monster’s name Gojira was derived as a result of a synthesis of the words gorira (which translates to ‘gorilla’) and kujira (which translates to ‘whale’). This monster is a metaphor for the catastrophe that humans beckon themselves in their lust for power and control, a mammoth mistake of mankind which, once committed, cannot again be made to disappear in the pages of history but will make its presence felt every now and then, as we see in one scene—Godzilla destroying half of Tokyo with his fiery breath. It is reminiscent of the American bomber planes destroying Tokyo with Napalm bombs, which resulted in over 100,000 deaths. Gojira, thus, is undeniably a monster movie with a purpose and a sense of history.

Honda’s film would prove to be extremely influential and would later go on to become one of the most popular franchises with over 25 sequels and 3 American adaptations. One can find references to Gojira in numerous films, most notably the usage of the film’s background score in Leos Carax’s Tokyo! and Holy Motors.

End Notes

These three films are representative of the trauma faced by the Japanese populace and document the contemporary socio-political scenario that had plagued Japan during the post war years. These films also give us an idea about the damage that the atomic bombs had left in their wake – both physical and psychological. Due to the censorship imposed by the American authorities after the war, filmmakers could not be overtly critical of the Americans and they had to resort to subtle modes of expression in which they could criticize the authorities. This had actually led to films that were artistically much more superior than the films that had come before and during the war.

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