Early on in Children of Hiroshima, a rapid series of snapshots of the titular city flicker on screen. It’s eight in the morning on August 6, 1945, and the most recent air-raid alert has passed and, all around, residents are busily finishing their morning routines: children hustle off to school, dutiful housewives prepare lunch packs, and the workday commute buzzes into action. The scene is strangely placid considering we’re in late wartime Japan, and this unnerving sense of calm only serves to heighten the cruel dramatic irony unfolding for a viewer primed for a nuclear disaster. For a moment, director Kaneto Shindō plays into our mounting sense of dread; a clock ticks loudly, its doomsday metronome hurriedly ushering in another round of sunny imagery (a glistening river, a crawling baby) framed by off-kilter cinematography foreshadowing a reality soon to be knocked off its steady footing. A simple flash blots out the screen, and as its haze recedes a bewildering parade of bare chests, streaked with blood, mingles with a macabre theater of bent limbs, frozen howls, and empty stares.
Shindō seems on the verge of delving full speed into Eisenstein-inspired agitprop cinema (which would have made the Japan Teachers’ Union, the leftie commissioners of this project, beam with pride), but here he abruptly shifts gears. Taking inspiration from the film’s source text (a collection of firsthand schoolchildren’s accounts also titled Children of Hiroshima), Shindō decides to embrace a much smaller, personal story. We follow a schoolteacher’s return to Hiroshima four years after the disaster as she attempts to reconnect with the three surviving children from her kindergarten class. Along the way, the angelic young woman—played by frequent Shindō collaborator and wife Nobuku Otowa—happens across a former employee of her father’s, blinded in the blast and presently homeless, and a fellow teacher rendered infertile by radiation.
Having little more to offer than a compassionate ear, she travels the city as a sort of a listening apostle, collecting sundry stories of woe. These tales are occasionally underlined with deep wails atmospherically dropped in by Akira Ifukube’s dark score, but more often the action plays with a simple realism more befitting a documentary. There’s something flat and disappointingly episodic about her journey from victim to victim, yet taken on aggregate, a picture of a society wholly wrecked emerges, and by the time a child utters the truism, “War is the ultimate evil,” the veracity of sentiment is deeply felt as well as understood. That Shindo achieves this without resorting to direct allegory or polemical treatise is an impressive feat indeed.
For much of the film, Otowa is little more than a vessel for sympathy, anxiously looking to fill herself to the brim with the tears of survivors. Reassuring her former students and friends of their relative good fortunes, she consistently manages to stoically spit out words of encouragement through a wooden smile. As we begin to wonder if benevolent ignorance is the disheartening best we can expect to salvage from the atomic ruins, Shindō offers a revelatory final act, as striking for its clearheaded call to action and promise of a better future as for its cruel admonition that the past can never truly be undone.
Kaneto Shindō’s Children of Hiroshima will screen as part of the BAMcinématek series “The Urge for Survival: Kaneto Shindō.” For more information, click here.