Friday, August 04, 2006

Children of Hiroshima (1952)

Children of Hiroshima (Kaneto Shindô, 1952)
Japanese Title: Gembaku no ko

In a scene in Kaneto Shindô's Children of Hiroshima, Takako Ishikawa (Nobuko Otowa) converses with the adoption center's caretaker. The caretaker, as if reading statistics from an almanac, tells Takako that there are more orphans in Hiroshima than Tokyo and Kyoto combined, notwithstanding the fact that the two latter cities are bigger and more populated. He goes on telling that there are a few hundred orphans in a number of orphanages in the city, but the exact number cannot be determined since there must probably be more who are actually living in the streets. Shindô takes those statistics into account and tells a compassionate story of the surviving offsprings of that fateful day when the A-bomb was dropped in the middle of Hiroshima and literally obliterating its innocent citizens.

Takako used to be a kindergarten teacher in Hiroshima but later on, moved to a remote fishing island after her parents and sister perished during the bombing. After six years, she decides to return to visit her former colleague in Hiroshima. While walking past the street, she notices a blind beggar who she remembers as her father's assistant Iwakichi (Osamu Takizawa). She stays the night in Iwakichi's shack and learns that the former assistant's son also perished during the war, leaving only little Taro, his grandchild, as his remaining relative. However, Taro is staying at the adoption center since Iwakichi cannot afford to raise the child with his meager earnings. Takako then stays with her colleague Natsue (Niwa Saito), and from there, visits the three remaining survivors of her former kindergarten class. The visits and the entire experience in Hiroshima becomes an eye-opener for Takako, who takes more than experiences with her on her way back to the fishing island.

Made right after the Americans occupation of Japan, Children of Hiroshima seems more like a reminder that the scars of the Pacific War have not faded. When the shores of Hiroshima appears in Takako's sight, while aboard the ferry from the island to the city, she begins a narration about how the land has forgotten that day. The river is still flowing as it was, the skies as wide as it was. We also see reconstruction undergoing, with huge machineries blocking the rubbles and the devastation that used to be there. However, the scars are visible. Physically, structures remain as mere skeletons of their former grandeur. Black chars color cement steps telling a story of a man who was completely vaporized while innocently seated there. Less tangible is the taint that will forever haunt the city. In the beginning, Takako's aunt and uncle carefully select their words as if avoiding the topic of the bombing. The citizens of Hiroshima nonchalantly joke about it and just continue their lives, bearing whatever permanent injury or disease they have encountered because of the A-bomb's radiation. It's a creeping terror that has afflicted the city. The result is a forced forgetfulness, or a graceful acceptance that such is an act of fate, or a complete rejection of the past's former grandeur, and that the present is merely a perpetual hell one has to live with.

Shindô achieves what he wants by combining both objectivity and melodrama. Flashbacks are utilized to depict the change that was caused by the bombing. Most disturbing among these flashbacks is the depiction of the few minutes before the explosion, which Shindô captured with both the objectivity of a documentarian and the emotionality of one who is actually affected by the tragedy. There, he uses bizarrely formed tableaus of bloodied and injured women, their babies crying, and destruction within the perimeter of the frame, to create a lasting image of how terrifying and hellish it must have been caught in the middle of a sudden twist of fate. The effective musical scoring by Akira Ifukube accompanies the imagery with emotional precision.

At times poignant, but mostly overbearing and pushy, the revelation of Hiroshima's orphans' plight unfolds in uneven levels. There are times when Shindô seems to be pondering too much on a point already driven at, and there are times where Shindô quickly steals away a moment wherein much emotional resonance is still brewing. The narrative arcs might be a bit creased at the edges, and could have been reduced to less melodramatic effects. However, the import of the film is derived because of its value, as a belated warning that, as one of the children states in a surprisingly innocent and peaceful demeanor before finally dying, "war is evil."


JCS said...

I wish that Japan didn't keep so much of their cinema under lock and key. This one received the approval for foreign distribution, but so many of their films are on DVD in Japan, but not with English subtitles (I suppose, exactly opposite of America, they don't care for the foreign market). I thought about naming some of the Japanese films that I would like to see subtitled, but exactly how much time do you have? It would take all day.

Oggs Cruz said...

Thanks JCS,

I guess that is really how it goes with countries with a thriving cinema. There's no real need to export their art. Similarly, the Philippines is only slowly trying to creep into the foreign market, but the great difficulty in tapping Philippine cinema is that there's no real effort to releasing titles outside the usual suspects (Brocka, Bernal, and even these directors' works arent very well-represented in international DVD markets). Moreover, the prints are slowly getting consumed by wear and time. At least Japan doesn't have that problem. It only needs an enterprising individual to release these films to the international market.