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The Difficult Questions

The Difficult Questions

62 years after bombs fell on Hiroshima and Nagasaki, documentarian Stephen Okazaki tells the stories of survivors in modern cities that are struggling to remember their horrific pasts.

By APA Staff

This interview was originally published in Asia Pacific Arts.

In the opening section of Stephen Okazaki's latest documentary, White Light/Black Rain: The Destruction of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, Japanese teenagers on the streets are asked if they know the significance of the date August 6, 1945. Despite the fact that the events of that date radically transformed the future of their country as well as the dynamics of international diplomacy forever, the youngsters giggled nervously, embarrassed that they did not know.

While these street interviews have little direct relation to the documentary which follows, they are a fitting preface because they depict the disturbing consequences of collective amnesia and the political appropriation of historical trauma. The teenagers' shocking reactions remind us of the urgency of memory at a moment when weapons of mass destruction continue to take human lives in a woeful echo of wars past.

The interviews also illustrate the necessity for creative works of artistry, history, and reporting to fill in gaps in our knowledge with vivacity and intelligence. Oscar-winning filmmaker Stephen Okazaki has made acclaimed films on Japanese American incarceration, heroin addiction, and Asian American identity. His latest is White Light/Black Rain, a labor of love spanning several decades. For a mainstream documentary, it's a pioneering work: a collection of interviews that seeks to transcend continents and political agendas, while reaching a mass audience.

White Light/Black Rain will debut on HBO on Aug. 6, 2007, 62 years to the day after the bombs fell. For more schedule information, visit the White Light/Black Rain website.

Asia Pacific Arts teamed up with the Asian press review website AsiaMedia to speak with Stephen Okazaki about the process of making the film, working with HBO, and showing the film in Japan. --Brian Hu


Stephen Okazaki interview
July 18, 2007
Interviewed by Brian Hu and Angilee Shah
Camera and video edit by Oliver Chien
Transcribed by Ada Tseng

Asia Pacific Arts: Let's talk about how the project got started. How did you find the Pearl Harbor survivors? Originally, there were a lot more survivors than those who ended up in the film.

Stephen Okazaki: Well, it's a subject that I've been following. It's a film I've been thinking about for a really long time -- really about 25 years. So I have met a lot of survivors in that amount of time, like 500 people at least. So for this film, we did a casting call. We wanted a variety of people. A lot of the people I knew from before had died, or their memories were slipping. There's a limited window on Hiroshima and Nagasaki right now -- the average person was probably 11, 12, 13 years old at the time. I try to remind people that this is not the full story. We've lost a lot of the story now. This film is for the most part a teenager's point of view of what happened there.

A lot of the people we wanted to interview were too old, people who were in the 20s at the time. Their memories were slipping, or they were ill. And I met a lot of people who were too young -- three, four, five, six years old -- and even though they might remember one part of it really well, like it was yesterday, I could tell that the other parts of their story came from part of the community, an uncle's story mixed in, or even something they read or saw on TV became part of their story. We wanted really reliable witnesses, so we tried to pick the people with the sharpest, clearest memories.

On one hand, there were a lot of people who wanted to be in the film. We did open meetings where we'd say, "Come and meet us and talk about your experience." And we would have a dozen people there. And people were really eager to tell their stories.... I think, with something like Hiroshima and Nagasaki, it's something that makes people uncomfortable, so even though people might know survivors, they don't ask them. They're sort of embarrassed, or they bring their own fears into the relationship. We found survivors that hadn't told their friends or family members. People really wanted to tell their stories fully, so it was easy to get people.

But when we looked for specific kinds of survivors, it was a little more difficult, and we realized that there are still a lot of people who were afraid to talk.

APA: Did you ever feel that reluctance to ask why and any hesitance to let people spill [their stories]?

SO: This is a project that I initially wanted to do when I first became a filmmaker, which was 27 years ago. I think that if I made the film then, I would have been really intimidated by the subject. I find that almost with any interview, it's often more revealing about the interviewer. With a subject that's really difficult, often what you get sort of reflects your comfort and your level of curiosity.

I learned that these people had been through hell, and so asking them a difficult question is not going to ruin their lives in any way. It's probably not something they haven't thought about. Sometimes it's just this obvious question that they hold off on answering.

For instance, someone talks about losing every single member of their family. There's one woman in the film who talks about reaching out to touch her mother, and the body just turning into ashes. Sometimes your most natural question is, "Why didn't you just kill yourself?" or "Did you want to kill yourself?" And I think you have to ask the question that the audience is wondering as well, so I think it's your responsibility to ask everything.

And I think that once they sense that lack of fear on your part, it makes them feel freer. I think being Japanese American was a big advantage in doing this film. I did the interview with an interpreter, and I thought long and hard about how he worked as well. He was Japanese American as well, and so, I knew that even a much better interpreter who had a Caucasian face, or even a much better interpreter who was Japanese culturally -- I think the survivors would have been less open with both. There's this sort of a sense that we were in between, that we would not judge them as a Japanese person would, and they would not have to please us or be intimidated by an "American" face.

APA: One of the books that really struck me as a young journalist is John Hersey's Hiroshima, and I thought about that while I was watching the film since it's also about stories and people's lives. Were there any works that inspired you, or maybe that you looked at and said, "I really want to do this differently?"

SO: I admired the John Hersey book. It was and is the main reference still. Which is kind of a disturbing that nothing else has come along -- that book was written right after the bombing. People that I've met over the years who are in that book seem to value that experience of telling Hersey the story, and I think he was a rare, not ego-less but not infatuated with himself, not feeling like he was in command of history.

And there are other books -- there's a Roger Jay Lifton book called Death in Life, which is a psychological analysis. But even there, there's interpretive things. In the book, he says famously, something to the effect of "The survivors were so in touch with death that they talk to the dead, and they have a relationship with death," but that's really just inherent in Japanese culture. People have shrines in their homes, and people say a prayer every morning or something. So there's a lot of misinterpretation of Hiroshima, and there's a lot of mythology on all sides.

I've met survivors that go around the country and talk over and over, and they describe the bomb falling as being attached to a parachute. Because people looked up and saw parachutes. They had dropped some observational equipment, but people never even checked [what it was]. The bomb just dropped freely, but since that's what people saw, they think the bomb was attached to a parachute.

Following the subject and knowing it really well is a lesson in how history is written. It's written from a very particular point of view. It's been a struggle to make this film because we weren't able to do it for public television in either Japan or the United States, because public television is funded by the government.

HBO is really a rare company -- they're known for being edgy and taking chances with material related to sex, drugs, or violence. With this project they've had the same attitude towards history, just flat out saying, just tell the whole story. Don't pull any punches, don't censor yourself. I really worried with this film that it would be too graphic or too intense.

And I'd say, I think we put this footage up, people would turn the channel or leave the theater, but they said, "Who cares? Does that mean that you should censor yourself? This is a rare opportunity to tell this story, so just tell it. Don't worry about all that stuff." That was really hard because I think about the audience and want them to stay with the film.

APA: In another interview, you said you wanted to make a film that was free of politics and moralizing. This reminded me of two similar attempts at dealing with trauma: Gus Van Sant's Elephant and Spike Lee's When the Levees Broke. Both of those are also HBO films. You mentioned violence and nudity, but do you think there's also something political that allows you to get away with something different on HBO?

SO: I think the reality is that media is really conscious of where it is: left or right, Democrat or Republican. There's a lot of pressure from foundations or non-profit organizations to lean this way or that. We tried to do this project ten years ago with the Smithsonian and with Japanese Public Television, and they both backed out for the opposite reasons: the Japanese thought it made the Japanese look too bad, and the Americans didn't want to show anything negative about Americans. And I sort of said, "Well why did you even bother in the beginning?"

It's sixty-two years since the bombing and it's still a really political topic. It's still a topic that makes people uncomfortable. I developed an insecurity complex while I was making the film. Early on, I was at a party and people would ask what I'm working on and I'd say a Hiroshima/Nagasaki film, and I swear, 80 percent of the people either went, "Oh. I'm going to go get a drink" or they'd change the subject. Or they start arguing.... People have really strong feelings, but they really know nothing about the subject. I think it's natural to have a block because the images and stories are so disturbing. But I think it's surprising -- people really don't know anything about it.

APA: It seems like, through watching the film, the one narrative that you seem to have faith in are the artist's paintings. Can you say something about where you found these?

SO: NHK public television put out a call thirty years after the bombing and basically said "If you want to draw or paint or anything, send it in." And people sent in pencil scratches or elaborate watercolors and oil paintings, and they had a huge response, thousands of paintings. And then they did another solicitation around ten years ago and got another thousand pieces in. You can feel, in all these drawings, this memory; you can feel the intensity and urgency of getting it down on paper, and I think it was liberating for people, for someone to say, "Please, we welcome it, we'll put it up, people around the world might see it." And there's something really powerful about them, whether they're drawn badly or with great skill.

One thing we wanted to do [in the film] was try to make an accurate a film as possible.... We wanted to use the footage and use the photographs when they actually happened. And since there's almost no material of the day of the bombings, and I wanted cutaways, I thought we'll either go to nothing, or we'll use these drawings because they feel of the moment.

APA: For me, the most powerful use of footage was the This is Your Life footage [of 1955 episode featuring Hiroshima victims and a co-pilot of the Enola Gay, the American plane which dropped the first atomic bomb]. It was deeply disturbing and hard to watch. How did you come across that?

SO: This is Your Life, in its time which was 1955, was one of the biggest shows in America, so that footage is infamous. That show was one of the top five shows, and it probably represents the exposure on the subject.... Since I know the Hiroshima maiden story well, I knew the existence of that footage. There's a lot of mythology around the pilot after he was on the show. I heard this when I was in high school, that the guy who dropped the bomb killed himself. And I think he saw a psychiatrist -- which everyone does now -- but in those days, it was like saying you were insane. That was an extraordinary thing he did, which was to express any sympathy and regret. So he paid a huge price for that.

APA: Will the documentary be shown in Japan?

SO: I was told that we probably won't be able to get on Japanese television, because even though there's information in the film that's fairly common knowledge, it still paints an ugly picture of how the Japanese government treated the survivors. The Americans may have dropped the bomb and killed the people, but the Japanese, in my opinion, really made lives really miserable. They basically ignored the survivors for as long as they possibly could. So it's doubtful that it'll be on Japanese television, but we are having a theatrical run in Tokyo. I think we have a guaranteed run for five months, and we're going to play in at least 20 cities. I was just there last week, and the response was incredible. There's a lot going on in Japan right now that makes people particularly interested in this subject, and there hasn't been a film like this in Japan.

APA: Do you think politicians have forgotten to include this history in their dialogue on changes to Japan's constitution?

SO: Just a couple of weeks ago, while we were there, the Defense Minister of Japan, which is the equivalent of the Secretary of Defense, basically sided with the American opinion of Hiroshima and Nagasaki and said it couldn't be helped. And people were shocked that he would make such an insensitive statement, basically saying the people that died, it couldn't be helped. [Defense Minister Fumio Kyuma resigned on July 3 after saying in a speech, "I understand that the bombings ended the war, and I think that it couldn't be helped."] So, I don't know if it's amnesia -- maybe politically arrogance and the desire to push the past into something that's.... Well, what disturbs me is that the conversation is never about people's lives, it's about strategy. As if war is just strategy and battles won or lost. The point of the film is to put a human face on it and to show the real tragedy of it.

APA: What kind of questions do the Japanese media ask?

Not to be a smartass, but the Japanese were really preoccupied with the message. So it was hard, because it was me saying "I didn't really want to make a message film," and they'd say "Ok... so what is your message?" [laughs] But beyond that, they just kind of trick you into saying what your message is.

People, for the most part, really got the film there. I was really pleased, because I felt confident that I could do the editing, but I'm not really capable of seeing the film from the Japanese point of view, and I made the film primarily for the English-speaking audience but hoped that it would connect to the Japanese as well. But people seemed really moved by the film.

Terasaki Center for Japanese Studies