It’s hard to imagine HBO’s disturbing documentary on survivors of the two atomic bombs dropped on Japan appearing on an American TV network 10 or 20 years after the event. Filmmaker Steve Okazaki tried — and failed — to make it for the 50th anniversary.
There’s apparently enough emotional scar tissue built up to allow HBO’s premiere of “White Light/Black Rain: The Destruction of Hiroshima and Nagasaki” on Monday (7:30 p.m. ET), exactly 62 years after the United States detonated the first-ever nuclear bomb over Hiroshima. The second, and so far last, atomic bomb was dropped three days later. It ended World War II.
Why is the time finally right?
“History is always worth recording and if there is a moment in history that hasn’t been recorded and you’re in a place where you have the resources, you should do it,” said Sheila Nevins, head of HBO’s documentary unit. She hopes it becomes a document of record shown in schools.
The uncomfortable footage of cities reduced to rubble and grotesquely deformed survivors has received relatively little circulation because — unlike the well-recorded Holocaust — this was something done by Americans, Nevins said.
HBO and Okazaki also felt the same urgency experienced by “The Greatest Generation” author Tom Brokaw and Ken Burns, maker of PBS’ epic series on World War II coming this fall. People who fought and survived World War II are dying quickly now, and soon there will be no more eyewitnesses.
The film is built on stories told by 14 survivors, with childrens’ pictures depicting the bombing and footage of the injured that was banned from the public for 25 years. The American-born Okazaki interviews crew members who dropped the bombs and wondered whether they would escape before their planes were engulfed in the mushroom cloud.
Film began as a school project
The project dated back to the early 1980s, when Okazaki agreed to accompany his sister to a San Francisco area meeting of bomb survivors for a school project she was doing on Hiroshima and Nagasaki.
She dropped the class, but he went to the meeting anyway. At its end, one man stood up and said that everyone who agreed Okazaki should make a film about their stories should raise their hands. They all did and turned to him.
He made a short film and others that showed his interest in the era, including the Oscar-winning “Days of Waiting,” about one of the few white Americans held in custody with Japanese-Americans during World War II.
Okazaki wanted to make a comprehensive documentary about the experience of living through the bombings and began doing it for PBS in the mid-1990s. But the project fell through, with the filmmaker believing PBS didn’t want to risk angering World War II veterans. He instead made a more personal film, “The Mushroom Club,” and figured his dream was dead.
That’s when he heard from Nevins.
“I was shocked when they called and said they wanted to do this film and when they described it, I realized it was the film I had wanted to do for 25 years,” he said.
When he attended a festival of bombing-related films in the 1980s, Okazaki was struck by how little survivors were heard from. People had an aversion; it was much easier to debate whether dropping bombs that instantly killed more than 200,000 people was right or wrong.
That debate continues today. Many believe that a potential U.S. invasion would have killed many more people if the Japanese hadn’t been shocked by the bombs into surrender. Some think Japan’s war effort was near an end anyway, and that the bombs were partly meant to intimidate Russia.
Theodore “Dutch” Van Kirk, navigator of the plane that dropped the Hiroshima bomb, is among those who believe it was necessary to end the war.
He saw Okazaki’s film and didn’t seem overwhelmed.
“The story about the survivors of this has been told many, many times,” Van Kirk, 86, told The Associated Press. “It doesn’t change. And this is just another story about survivors. I don’t think there will be much reaction to it at all.”
There were no advance protests. Nevins is curious about how it will be received after what she thought was a strangely dry-eyed reception at a Sundance Film Festival screening. “It was well-received intellectually but it wasn’t well-received emotionally,” she said.
Other than documenting the horror of war, the film carefully takes no sides on the morality of dropping the bomb. Okazaki even refuses, in an interview, to say how he personally feels about it.
“I do have strong opinions and feelings about it,” he said. “But I have a stronger motivation to get these stories out. There was this empty space on the shelves under ‘H.”’
That’s not entirely true. The 1970s film “Hiroshima Mon Amour” contained post-detonation footage. The 1989 Japanese film “Kuroi ame (Black Rain)” was about the aftermath. Reporter John Hersey’s book “Hiroshima” has received wide circulation.
Something Okazaki found mystifying, and a barrier to his research, was the lingering stigma faced by bomb survivors in Japan. Perhaps it’s because they remind Japanese of a time they’d rather forget; it was never fully explained to him. When he sought to interview the “Hiroshima Maidens,” girls who came to the United States in the 1950s for surgery on disfigurements, the only one who’d talk was a woman who now lives in the U.S.
Okazaki also found a plaque where the Nagasaki bomb detonated that said everyone within a one kilometer area was killed instantly — except an 8-year-old girl who had fallen asleep in a bomb shelter.
He tracked her down and she refused a meeting.
“Her husband only knew that she was a survivor and she felt that (being in the film) would hurt her husband’s business and her children’s job opportunities,” he said. “So the story will never be told.”