World War II events as infamous as the attack of Pearl Harbor are Aug, 6 and 9, 1945; the days the United States dropped atom bombs on the cities of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. These bombings not only ended the War in the Pacific but pushed mankind into the nuclear age. How to tackle a story this humongous? Of course, the answer lies with the people connected to the bombs. Director Steven Okazaki (the documentaries “Days of Waiting” and “Black Tar Heroin” and the drama “Living on Tokyo Time“), as masterful as ever, shows both sides of the bombings with his perfectly structured and utterly engaging history documentary “White Light/Black Rain.”
A good part of the film involves the American soldiers who dutifully carried out the bombing mission. Patriotism and a love for the United States have mostly kept them at peace with their actions. The film’s best moments lie with the purported enemy, the Japanese civilians whose lives were changed the moments the bombs fell. These casualties of war, the “hibakusha,” are survivors who have been exposed to the bombs’ radiation. They are pariahs in the homeland; recipients of little government support for many years, and stigmatized for their noticeable skin scars.
Through the interviews provided by the numerous “hibakusha,” each of them providing a new layer of insight and heartache, Okazaki’s film becomes more memory film than a historical documentary in the vein of “Civil War” director Ken Burns. Okazaki is simply not interested in facts regarding the bombings and their massive death count. “White Light/Black Rain” is a tale of human will, survival, and in some cases, forgiveness.
An animation sequence, one borrowed from a Japanese comic about the bombings, captures the horrific outcomes of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. The film’s archival footage, some of it seen by the public for the first time, is often difficult to watch. But to understand what it means to be a “hibakusha,” you need an intimate understanding of their suffering. “White Light/Black Rain” begins and finishes with a burst of color and activity as Japanese teens shop and hangout along a busy street in a popular shopping district. Asked their thoughts on Hiroshima and Nagasaki, they respond with blank stares despite the fact that there are 200,000 hibakusha, the survivors of the bomb, living today. These teens answer the why regarding the long and arduous work Okazaki and his crew (sound technicians Yuki Fukuda and Jason Cohen, and cinematographers, Takafumi Kawasaki, Steve Condiotti and Masfumi Ichinose) spent making “White Light/Black Rain.” One should never forget Hiroshima and Nagasaki and the harmed caused to innocent people. Those lucky enough to watch “White Light/Black Rain” never will.
ABOUT THE WRITER: Steve Ramos is an award-winning film writer based in Cincinnati, Ohio. When not on assignment, he maintains the blog Flyover Online.
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