How to relate the horror of the Hiroshima and Nagasaki bombings? Who can tell the story? Director, producer, and editor Steven Okazaki, a Japanese American, has survivors tell the story in his documentary film, White Light/Black Rain: The Destruction of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. There are no experts, no talking heads in the film, just survivor narratives interspersed with newsreels, searing images created by the survivors, and historic film footage, some of which was suppressed for decades by the U.S. government.
Okazaki opens with images of contemporary Hiroshima and Nagaski. Seventy-five percent of Japan's current population was born after August 1945, he tells us, and hammers home the need for his film with a series of dunce-on-the-street interviews. Asked, "Do you know what happened on August 6, 1945?" fashionable young Japanese consumers giggle and answer, "I don't know" over and over again. (Of course, he would have gotten the same answers on any street corner in the U.S.) Okazaki intends for the film to serve the purposes of what Alessandro Portelli would call a historical intervention against this collective act of massive amnesia.
"Little Boy," the bomb the U.S. dropped on Hiroshima on August 6, 1945, unleashed 1000 mph winds that were heated to an estimated 9000°F, and killed 140,000 people. "Fat Man," the bomb the U.S. dropped on Nagasaki 3 days later, exploded over a Catholic enclave on the outskirts of the city—the largest Christian community in Asia—and killed 70,000 people. The delayed effects of radiation killed at least another 160,000 in the years to come, and starvation and suicide surely took thousand more lives. Describing the full scale of this destruction and suffering is impossible. The only way to relate the pain the bombs unleashed is to do so on an individual, human scale.
Fourteen Japanese survivors of the Hiroshima and Nagasaki bombings recount what they saw and did on the days that the bombs fell and in the years that followed. The atomic bombing is understandably the central fact of their lives, the event around which everything else revolves. Three crewmembers of the Enola Gay, the American B-29 that dropped the bomb over Hiroshima, and one civilian employee of the Manhattan Project who observed the bombings from a nearby aircraft provide the top-down perspective, as it were. From their viewpoint, perhaps just as understandably, dropping the bomb was just something that happened—a significant event, to be sure, but only one in a lifetime of events. [End Page 196]
The four American narrators can only describe what they did as individuals in August 1945 and attempt to explain why. At the time they had to have felt intense pride in having carried out the most technologically complex mission in the war; they also believed that their actions shortened the war and ultimately saved tens of thousands of lives. Their interviews certainly convey this uneasy pride and sense of accomplishment. But the filmmaker also asks them to stand in for those who conceived of the Manhattan Project and decided to use nuclear bombs on civilian populations for the first and only time. The narrators prove unequal to this task, as well they should. One Enola Gay crewmember claims he "never had any sympathy, never had any nightmares" about or for the victims. But the camera captures him saying so through a nervous smile; methinks he doth protest too much. In any case, if he never had any nightmares, it can only mean that he has never watched the historical film of the bombings' immediate aftermath or the footage of the medical care provided by the U.S. Army to bombing victims, which Okazaki uses to literally and figuratively devastating effect.
In contrast, the Japanese narrators provide heart-wrenching testimony that I have to believe will reach its intended audience in every instance. Sakue Shimohira recounts her ordeal following the Nagasaki bombing. She and her sister were the only two members of their family...