Masaaki Tanabe’s works eloquently re-create the lives of those lost to the bomb
The best book I have read this year is “Genbaku ga Keshita Hiroshima” (Hiroshima that was annihilated by the atomic bomb), published by Bungei Shunju. I was attracted by the title, which uses an old character for “Hiroshima” and invokes the life of this town, which once flourished at the mouth of rivers flowing into the Seto Inland Sea.
The author of the book, Masaaki Tanabe, 73, is a renowned filmmaker. He has re-created the town that was at ground zero in his films, using state-of-the-art technology. This year, he completed a documentary film that elaborately re-enacted the Nakajima district located in the heart of Hiroshima, which was the city’s leading entertainment quarter and, reduced to ashes, now hosts the Hiroshima Peace Memorial Park.
Tanabe was born in what was then Sarugakucho, near where the Atomic Bomb Dome stands now. It was the end of 1937, when the Sino-Japanese War was turning into a quagmire. When Tanabe was a second-grade elementary school student, he lost his mother and brother to the atomic bomb, as well as his home, which was located at ground zero. When Tanabe returned home with his grandmother from an evacuation location in the countryside, he saw the aftermath of the bomb and was exposed to residual radiation. His father, who was a serviceman, became weak from radiation from the bomb and died on Aug. 15 in despair — on the day Japan lost the war.
Tanabe worked his way through college to study filmmaking, and after graduation he started working for a newspaper company, where he was in charge of news films. He always stayed away from the A-bomb issues, even after he left the newspaper company and started working on his own.
However, an unexpected turning point came when he was 60. Some high school girls who seemed to be on a school trip to Hiroshima asked Tanabe to take their pictures in front of the A-bomb Dome.
While he looked through the finder of the camera — and the high school girls gave peace signs and yelled cheerfully for the shot — he noticed the site where the kitchen of his childhood home used to be, where his mother and brother supposedly died.
Those girls don’t know what happened here, he thought, but he didn’t blame them for that. The experience, however, led him to decide that he shouldn’t run away from A-bomb issues any more. Re-creating what ground zero looked like before the bomb was his mission, he felt.
We have seen a number of films that portray the catastrophe that the A-bomb brought to the streets and people of Hiroshima. However, what are re-enacted in Tanabe’s films are the ordinary lives of people in the town, filled with their various day-to-day emotions, as well the town’s rhythm and atmosphere.
Tanabe visited people across the country that have affiliations with ground zero, traced their memories, and collected their photographs they had taken from before the atomic bombing. Many of the pictures are carried in the book, and they surely portray just the same innocent smiles as those of the high school girls who posed in front of the A-bomb Dome.
An interesting story that Tanabe gives is that a recreation of the town at ground zero made based on the recollections of former residents turned out to actually be twice as big as the real town, showing that human beings tend to remember the things they cherish as being larger and greater than they really were. Tanabe determined the actual width of each house’s front based on the intervals between electricity poles taken in pictures from those days.
“I wanted to bring to film the lives of ordinary citizens up until just before the dropping of the atomic bomb,” Tanabe writes in his book. I believe the description of the ordinary lives that were lost can tell the tale of terror of destruction and deprivation more eloquently than anything else.
This year saw a number of foreign dignitaries visiting Hiroshima and Nagasaki, and I hope the U.S. president will follow suit next year. When he visits Hiroshima, in addition to the casualty records, I also hope he will see what the old Hiroshima was like before its annihilation and compare it to the streets and people back in his home country. (By Kenji Tamaki, Expert Senior Writer)
(Mainichi Japan) December 30, 2010