As time passes, tragic historical events remain, at first, in the vivid memory of the survivors and the people who lived them at the time. Then, pieces of such stories are sometimes passed to their children. Other times, they are very often not, as many people from past generations learned not to speak about their pain. Travelling in bits and pieces from one generation to another – how much of the dimension and vividness of that reality can survive and be a tangible lesson for generations after? How do we ensure we don’t forget so we do not repeat history – as people growing up removed from such realities and perhaps with a sense that the past is far away? Based on a true story of surviving the Hiroshima bombing, J.R. Heffelfinger made a film that has exactly that power – to bring that past to present, a painful but so necessary reminder of what has happened, and also a reminder about the strength of the human spirit in the most dreadful times.
A hot day ahead
Shinji Mikamo and his father were about to dismantle the family home at the request of the government to help control fires caused by bombings. Shinji’s father was too old to manage the preparations for this. After breakfast, Shinji climbed on the roof to start the work. There was a clear sky, and a hot day was expected ahead. Shinji was looking forward to a swim. But then, at 8:15 sharp, everything changed forever. In Shinji’s words, he heard the sound of the universe exploding.
Through powerful reenactments and actor Sotaro Tanaka narrating the story in first person as Shinji, the story of the doom that followed goes beyond a simple telling. The emotions and the pain conveyed through the scenes remove the curtain of time that passed since the actual event in 1945, and bring those realities to the present.
The emotions and the pain conveyed through the scenes remove the curtain of time that passed since the actual event in 1945, and bring those realities to the present.
An immediate experience
The film feels like an immediate direct experience. Tanaka conveys each moment with a sense of pain and overwhelms in recalling what happened. His words, delivered with calm and dignity, have the effect of a full suspension of disbelief, fully embodying Shinji.
Despite being severely injured – day after day, Shinji and his father pushed forward, looking for help. As Shinji felt he couldn’t go on, his father did not accept his son would give up. Father and son turned into this team of two that stood up on their feet after the catastrophic bombing and kept moving forward.
Each step they take is told in detail – conveying all senses. What they see, how they feel, how their injuries feel and develop, it all becomes an emotional journey for the viewer, and a captivating one, making you want to know what happened next, despite the pain and the horror that reaches you through the screen.
The film weaves archival images and audio and video recordings from interviews Akiko Mikamo – who serves as an executive director of the film – conducted with Shinji, her father. She grew up with this story, and she always felt the world has to hear it. The film is based on the book she wrote when her father was in his 70s and felt he was ready to tell what happened to him and put it out in the world.
Father and son turned into this team of two that stood up on their feet after the catastrophic bombing and kept moving forward.
Frozen in time
One symbolic – and real – element appears in the film and is linked to something that brought attention to the book: Shinji’s father’s watch. Several months after the ordeal and after his father’s death, he returns and finds the remains of the family home, and amongst them, he finds his father’s pocket watch. The bomb had burned 8:15 into its face. He eventually donated the watch to the peace museum in Hiroshima, and they sent it to New York to be showcased by the United Nations. But the watch was stolen. Hearing about this, Shinji was surprisingly happy. Media outlets covered the news of the stolen watch, which only brought more attention to Shinji’s story and his message of peace.
A message of peace is what the film brings too. Innovative in format, by telling Shinji’s story, the film makes those tragic days immediate, experiential almost – for generations of people for whom that past is usually recalled in few words, statistics, and black and white photos with which is hard to truly connect. But Shinji was real, and everyone who went through that ordeal was real. At the end of the film, all intergenerational fog that separates that past with this moment is erased, leaving a sense of direct contact in the humanness and in the power of forgiveness the film so powerfully conveys.