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  • The Evolution of Nuclear Fear in Post-Occupation Japanese Film
  • Kelly Burton

In the wake of the first use of atomic weapons against the Japanese people, the people of the United States were generally pensive about the decision that had just been made on their behalf. Historian Paul Boyer has stated that, “for a fleeting moment after Hiroshima, American culture had been profoundly affected by atomic fear, by a dizzying plethora of atomic panaceas and proposals, and by endless speculation on the social and ethical implications of the new reality.”1 Faced with the almost instant death of two hundred thousand Japanese people, most of them civilians, Americans were forced to examine the morality of their leaders’ choice to engage weapons of such indiscriminate power. The appearance of American journalist John Hersey’s Hiroshima, a collection of firsthand accounts of the attack, just one year after the bombings showed the level of misgiving that many in the country had regarding the government’s decision to end the war at the cost of civilian lives, and the book’s subsequent success further displayed the level of U.S. introspection regarding Japanese victims.2 Boyer’s “fleeting moment” ended on August 29, 1949, however, when the Soviet Union successfully conducted their first atomic test in Semipalatinsk, Kazakh. “By the end of the 1940s,” Boyer remarks, “the cultural discourse had largely stopped. Americans now seemed not only ready to accept the bomb, but to support any measures necessary to maintain atomic supremacy” over the Soviet Union.3 With civilization-destroying weapons now in the hands of two acknowledged adversaries, the American public – and, indeed, the world – then turned their attention to the new concept of “mutually assured destruction.” A morally disturbing question about mass murder had turned to an existentially disturbing question about mass extinction.

While humanity at large was becoming vocally anxious about the international implications of the Cold War, particularly about the “trauma” Susan Sontag saw in the constant threat of “collective incineration,”4 the Japanese people were struggling to give expression to their unique status as firsthand witnesses to the very same. After suffering a tremendous loss under the guidance of what proved to be bellicose leadership, Japanese citizens began to view their recent wartime militarism as “a light that failed.”5 In addition [End Page 41] to this re-examination of recent military aggression, Japan was also coping with the deeper physical and psychological ramifications of the nuclear attacks that had ended the war in the Pacific. As with virtually all the dialogues that took place in Japan from August 1945 to April 1952, discussions pertaining to the atomic bomb and its aftereffects were heavily mediated by the offices of the Allied occupation, which issued rules to temper dissenting voices, especially in Japan’s film industry: “In the Occupation years it was strictly prohibited to criticize America’s role in the tragedy, and the only way the subject could be broached in film” was through “sentimentality.”6 Mental and corporeal issues that arose after the dropping of the A-bombs were similarly scrutinized by Allied censors, and the only way to address these themes on film was also in a sentimental manner. When media restrictions were lifted after the Allies withdrew their forces in 1952, politically-minded filmmakers in Japan began to use the medium to discuss the bomb in more realistic terms, but do the films before this withdrawal nonetheless bear the marks of the trauma? Historian Anirudh Deshpande has argued that the various sociological elements that are inherently captured in cinema – such as behavior, topography, infrastructure – can provide scholars with “valuable source material for social history,” and this is particularly true in the case of these post-Occupation films,7 which offer historians a more nuanced view of the nuclear fears that were otherwise suppressed in the media by American forces directly after World War II.

Japanese Cinema to 1952

When seeking to explain the importance of Japan’s cinematic output as historical evidence, it first is useful to examine how film has integrated itself into the country’s collective consciousness. From the first appearance of the Kinetoscope in the late nineteenth century, the medium of...


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