‘Hiroshima Mon Amour’
Time, Memory, and Forgetfulness
On August 6, 1945, U.S. forces dropped one of two atomic bombs; one called “Little Boy” on the Japanese city of Hiroshima. The second atomic bomb would be dropped three days later, on August 9th, on the Japanese city of Nagasaki; it was called “Fat Man.”
You can ask why we would want to remember such a horrific event, and you can debate whether we did the right thing or not by dropping the bombs. It can also be argued that the United States committed a war crime in dropping the two atomic bombs. This article is not here to take a side, but simply to make a note that it happened.
In an instant, hundreds of thousands of lives were taken, and the death toll would continue to rise over the following days. Over the following years, radiation sickness would ravage the insides of more victims and take even more lives. The Japanese society even created a word for survivors: hibakusha, which literally translates to “explosion-affected people.” There is even a word for “double explosion-affected people,” i.e., those who fled the horror in Hiroshima and ran to Nagasaki, and who then survived that bombing: nijū hibakusha.
As all societies do, Japan looked to its artists to make sense of this tragedy, and the artists did not disappoint. They created movies, novels, manga, and music. If you didn’t know, Godzilla was born from the atomic bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. (In the original 1954 Godzilla movie, Godzilla himself is a metaphor for the horror and destruction of the atomic bomb.)
There is a great novel by Japanese author Masuji Ibuse called Black Rain, which was also made into a movie (not the one starring Michael Douglas) about the bombings, and about how the survivors lived the rest of their lives waiting to die from radiation poisoning.
However, the movie I want to talk about here is the French film Hiroshima Mon Amour, or Hiroshima, My Love in English. Here is the trailer for it:
Based on the novel of the same name, it is about a French actress filming an anti-war movie in Hiroshima who has an affair with a married Japanese architect. Set over a period of 36 hours, it details the series of conversations they have as she prepares to return to France. They talk of memory and forgetfulness, and they liken the ending of a relationship to the bombing of the Japanese cities. The man lost his family in the bombing, and she recalls her lover during the war; a German soldier who later died. The early part of the film recounts in the style of a documentary, but is narrated by unidentified characters, the effects of the Hiroshima bomb in particular to the loss of hair, and the complete anonymity of the remains of some victims.
In the novel, the anonymity extends even to the man and the woman as they are referred to only as Her and Him, though in the movie they are given the names Elle and Liu.
Here’s the first four and half minutes of the movie (there is no dialogue for the first 80 seconds):
In the movie, first-time feature film director Alan Resnais actually used some documentary film footage showing the after effects of the bombing. The footage is truly harrowing.
The movie earned the screenwriter, Marguerite Duras, an Oscar nomination, and it won the International Federation of Film Critics Prize at the 1959 Cannes Film Festival. The movie was excluded from the official selection because of its sensitive subject matter, and also to avoid upsetting the U.S. Government. In 1960, it won the highly prestigious Grand Prix of the Belgian Film Critics Association.
As the movie is only a series of conversations with the specter of the atomic bomb looming large over everything, it becomes a meditation on the atomic bomb and its use. The unthinkable of it being used once, never mind again, and how it kills so indiscriminately and so thoroughly. As Elle and Liu have discussions about the bomb with flashbacks—one of the first time those were ever used—the movie introduces a theme of memory and forgetfulness, and how the memories can fade over time and become forgotten.
This is what makes this movie so important. Not that it introduced into the lexicon of the idea of flashbacks, or that it was the first time the French and the Japanese made a movie together, or that it was a part of the French New Wave…
It’s important because it simply asks us not to forget, and to remember as long as we can. It doesn’t ask us to pick a side, to determine who was right, and who was wrong.
It just asks that we remember.
I can’t think of a better message for this month, and in general for life today.
Those who forget the past are condemned to repeat it.