A movie that has waited nearly 60 years for a U.S. theatrical premiere and could hardly be more timely, Kaneto Shindo’s Children of Hiroshima is a somber melodrama about the aftereffects of atomic radiation, shot on location in the half-rebuilt site of the world’s first nuclear catastrophe.
Showing for a week at BAM in advance of an 11-film Shindo retrospective (“The Urge for Survival,” which includes a feature the 99-year-old director completed this year), Hiroshima is a priori heartrending. Takako, a young, Hiroshima-born kindergarten teacher (played by Shindo’s late wife, Nobuko Otowa), leaves the paradise island where she lives to revisit her hometown for the first time, seven years after the bomb fell in 1945. A terse countdown montage accompanied by a delayed scream evokes in flashback the apocalypse of August 6, but, as befits its protagonist’s profession, Children of Hiroshima, which drew on a collection of essays by Hiroshima schoolchildren, is gently didactic.
Takako travels around the ruined city searching for the handful of former students and colleagues who survived the blast—variously maimed, scarred, blinded, made sterile by or dying from radiation poison. Her desire to help is thwarted by the enormity of their problems or undercut by their humble acceptance. This is a movie of blunt juxtapositions—death accompanied by the sound of raucous street musicians—as well as awkward flashbacks. Still, the strategy works. The past lives in the present, and the present has a news-bulletin urgency. U.S. occupation ended in April 1952; Shindo began shooting a month later, finishing the movie in time for an August 6 world premiere.
Although a popular success, Children of Hiroshima was criticized as insufficiently anti-American by Japan’s left-wing teachers’ union, which would finance a more polemical movie drawing on the same material. Shown at Cannes, Shindo’s film was overshadowed by the existential powerhouse Wages of Fear and foreign critics seem to have been unimpressed. Children of Hiroshima lacks the subtlety of films directed by Shindo’s peers Mikio Naruse or Yasujiro Ozu as well as the cinematic ferocity of atomic allegories like the monstrous Gojira (1954) or Kurosawa’s I Live in Fear (1955). It does, however, have the capacity to wound.
The shame felt by Hiroshima’s survivors is experienced by the viewer. The movie ends on an anxious note—keep watching the skies—but more impressive is the degree to which, neither sentimental nor sensational, it evokes what, rightly or wrongly, seems a national capacity for stoicism and mutual obligation.
BAM is pairing Children of Hiroshima with another tale of survival, Shindo’s greatest international success, The Naked Island (1960). Gorgeously shot in wide-screen black-and-white on a hilly chunk of rock off the coast of Japan, the movie eschews all dialogue in recounting a farming family’s daily struggle to coax a crop of scrawny greens from the arid soil, irrigated with water they bring by boat from a neighboring island and then schlep up the cliff. With its emphasis on backbreaking routine (and narrative use of traumatic disruption) the movie anticipates the regiment of Jeanne Dielman, but, like Children of Hiroshima, it’s mainly a paean to resignation. The young mother (Otowa) suffers a grievous loss, rails briefly against the universe, and then goes back to carrying water up the hill for all eternity as the sun sets and the camera helicopters away.
Released here as The Island, Shindo’s movie was a notable arthouse hit. New York Times critic Bosley Crowther deemed it a “documentary” comparable to Nanook of the North; Stanley Kauffmann found it a tribute to the human spirit. “The movie lays bare the secret of this impoverished family,” he wrote in The New Republic. “They are happy.” Ninety minutes of never-ending chores shot like a travelogue and performed to the persistent accompaniment of a moody flamenco guitar and flute ensemble, The Naked Island borders on kitsch. Still, once seen it is not easily forgotten—the myth of Sisyphus transposed to Tahiti.