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The Spirit of Hiroshima

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Reviewed by DAVID G. GOODMAN


The Spirit of Hiroshima is an introduction to the issues surrounding the atomic bombing of Hiroshima and to the attempts by Japanese in that city today to make its legacy meaningful to themselves and to future genera­tions. It is a well-intentioned but not altogether successful film that will be most useful with younger audiences, who will respond to its emphasis on the experience of children. Older and more sophisticated viewers will want better storytelling and a more thorough analysis of the political, military, and humanitarian issues than this film provides.

The film begins by intro­ducing us to the Tonai family, an attractive young couple and their two sons, aged eight and twelve, who live in present-day Hiroshi­ma but who have never been to the annual commemoration of the atomic bombing on August 6. The Tonais have decided to give their children a history lesson and to attend the memorial ser­vice together, and we accompa­ny them as they eat breakfast, take the train into the city center, and attend the ceremony.

As the Tonai family pro­ceeds with its preparations, we meet three survivors of the bombing, who each tell us the story of their experience: Mat­subara Miyoko, a schoolgirl in 1945 who apparently was one of the Hiroshima Maidens brought to the United States in the 1950s for reconstructive plastic surgery; Sasamura Hiroshi, the principal of an elementary school; and Masuda Tsutomu, a teacher-turned-painter. The Spir­it of Hiroshima cuts back and forth among these witnesses, the Tonais, and historical images of the bombing.

The film tells its story through children—the Tonai boys and the survivors who were either children themselves dur­ing the war, or teachers working with children. This emphasis highlights the inhumanity of the bombing and appeals to viewers’ emotions. However, the film also acknowledges at several junc­tures that Japan had been waging an aggressive war in Asia and that Hiroshima and its environs were military targets; and Masu­da Tsutomu, the painter, asserts that Japan had in fact provoked the bombing by its aggression. The film thus provides a well balanced, albeit essentially anec­dotal, account of the Hiroshima catastrophe.

For adult viewers, the film is unsatisfying. The witnesses, particularly Ms. Matsubara, sin­cere as they undoubtedly are, seem scripted and wooden. Their accounts are poorly integrated into the story of the Tonais’ jour­ney and easily overwhelm it, making it seem superfluous. There is little real analysis of the reasons why the bomb was dropped or its long-term signifi­cance. We do not get to know the Tonai family well enough to identify with them, nor are perti­nent questions broached about their obvious ambivalence toward Hiroshima’s identity as the first city decimated by nuclear weapons.

The Spirit of Hiroshima is thus best suited for younger, less critical viewers. For more advanced high school and college audiences, alternatives would include the ABC News special Hiroshima: Why the Bomb Was Dropped (1995) and Enola Gay and the Atomic Bombing of Japan (History Channel, 1995), which interro­gate the bombing from “revi­sionist” and mainstream posi­tions respectively. John Junker­man’s Hellfire: A Journey From Hiroshima (First Run Features, 1987) examines the work of the painters Maruki Iri and Toshi, and does a superior job of approaching the bombing through the work of artists who devoted their lives to exploring its meaning.