History lessons and platitudes are all that most of us know about atomic bombings. Judge Joel Pearce finds documentary a precise, candid eye opener that shows the scale of these tragedies.
"All this pain we carry in our hearts and in our bodies, it must end with us." -Sakue Shimohira
This is a crucial time for World War II-centered documentaries, which is why we've seen such a rich collection of films dealing with World War II, the holocaust, and the atomic bombings. Over the next few years, we will no longer have any survivors of these events, and we will be a much larger step away from direct access to what happened between 1939 and 1945.
White Light, Black Rain highlights another reason it's so important to tell these stories now. It opens by interviewing a number of teens in Japan. They are asked what important event took place on August 6, 1945. None of the ones shown can answer. This may not be particularly shocking, but I'm not sure I want to live in a world where a whole generation doesn't know about Hiroshima and Nagasaki, let alone the teenagers that live in those cities. Somewhere along the way, I fear that we've lost sight of what every student needs to be educated on. There are events in history that simply cannot be forgotten, especially so soon after they have happened.
Director Steven Okazaki (Days of Waiting) shares this concern. As an attempt to counteract this forgetfulness, he has assembled the most powerful and unforgettable portrait possible of what happened when the bombs were dropped on these two Japanese cities. We spend time with the survivors and with the men involved in dropping the bombs. We are shown archive footage that I didn't even imagine existed. It's a flawlessly assembled documentary on an important subject.
Above anything else, White Light, Black Rain is a film designed to humanize its subjects. The people who died—and almost died—in Hiroshima and Nagasaki are not faceless victims who vanished in a puff of smoke, and the crew that flew the planes with instruments to do scientific readings were not monsters. The survivors were children, mostly, a generation of innocents who have lived for a full 60 years with pain, disfigurement, and a wide range of discrimination. They are, we soon discover, a truly delightful group of people. They are expert storytellers, reliving their experiences vividly for those who will listen. This comes from decades of people uninterested in hearing these stories, of grimacing at their ugliness and rushing away. The horrors they have persevered through are almost impossible to imagine. Most are the only survivors in their family. Some were the only survivor in schools of 600. As such, they have had to survive not only the physical effects of the bomb, but also complete isolation and feelings of guilt and shame.
There are also interviews with the surviving crew of the planes that dropped these bombs. Just as I can't imagine living through what the survivors have had to deal with, I can't imagine living for 60 years with the knowledge that you had been involved in such a horrifying act. One man recounts having been the last one to touch the bomb before it was dropped. These men had no idea what they were doing, really, they had simply been promised that the new weapons developed would put an end to the war. Does that validate their actions? I'm not sure, but I know I wouldn't want to be in their position. The film neither condemns nor pities them, which is probably the best approach. It doesn't set out to attack America either, though neither country comes out looking great. It simply presents the situation as precisely as possible.
That precision is almost unbearable to watch at times. As the survivors recount their experience, we see paintings made by survivors, and they are completely heartbreaking. These images start to combine with the descriptions, and we are almost forced to imagine—as much as we can—what it would have been like to be there. That section of White Light, Black Rain is hard to watch, but even that couldn't prepare me for the footage from the aftermath, when those paintings become photographs and video footage of the survivors and the dead. I won't try to describe these images here, but I know that it will be weeks before these images start to fade. It's not hard to believe the survivors when they say that some of the images still stick with them. In all the documentaries I've seen, I have never experienced a series of images that have impacted me this deeply.
The film has been presented as simply as possible by HBO. The presentation of the film is excellent, though the archival footage is cropped to fit the 1.78:1 frame. There are no extras on the disc, but I think that's the best choice here. When the film is finished, there's really nothing else to say or experience. The home page does have a study guide with links to further research, however.
White Light, Black Rain exists as a harsh reminder of the constant, unwavering, unthinkable pain and suffering that these people have struggled with for the past 60 years. The most incredible thing about it, though, is that these extraordinary people have accepted this suffering—if, and only if that means that nobody else will ever need to go through the same thing. For that reason alone, the horrifying images in this film need to be seared into the minds of the current world generation. We all need to bear witness to this tragedy, and make the right choices in the future. To say that everyone should see a film is a review cliché. I say instead that everyone has a responsibility to see White Light, Black Rain, so that we can guarantee that this horror will never be recreated.
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