Hiroshima (1953) by Hideo Sekigawa

The atomic bomb dropped on Hiroshima was a tragic landmark in world history, a painful reminder of humanity’s capacity for violence and the devastating power of technology. The destruction of the city, the incredible death toll, and the subsequent suffering led to a long period of contemplation on the morality of this attack. Hideo Sekigawa’s film begins with a class of students in 1953, some of whom are suffering the consequences of the bomb through leukemia (known as the atomic sickness). In a powerful monologue one of the students rails against the short memories of the people, suggesting that not only the world is quickly forgetting the horror of what happened, but even citizens of Hiroshima itself. We are then taken back to a period shortly before August 6th 1945, introduced to several people living in the shadow of war, but entirely oblivious to the coming atrocity. The film depicts the day of the bombing and what followed in heartbreaking detail, showing the loss and agony of the victims as they struggle to come to terms with the aftermath of this terrifying new weapon.

Yasutaro Yagi’s screenplay is based on real life accounts from the time, which were collected by Dr. Arata Osada in his 1951 book “Children of the Bomb”. Filmed in 1953, the memory of Hiroshima would still have been fresh in many people’s minds and its shockingly explicit depiction of things such as burn victims, mental anguish, the death of children, and other horrors, shows a determination to confront head-on this tragedy that left a deep scar on the Japanese psyche. The film does not have a singular narrative, instead showing various vignettes of different people and events that symbolise the period. Whether it is a class of children trapped beneath the rubble; a soldier who clings desperately to his sense of duty; or the wailing of infants for their mothers in makeshift refuges, the film takes us to the human heart of what this attack meant to those affected by it. “Hiroshima” righthly maintains a firm focus on the victims, rather than complicate it with unnecessary historical detail or attempt to retrospectively contextualise the attack, with only a brief mention of events such as Pearl Harbour and the Bataan Death March. The film’s recreation of the devastated city, rubble strewn streets, unquenchable fires burning, smoke billowing, is shocking to witness, giving a limited yet impactful sense of the reality. There are occasional clips taken from contemporary documentary footage, showing doctors at work on victims, or destroyed streets, that help remind the viewer that however extreme the portrait seems, if anything it does not capture the true horror of what occurred. The main cast comprises several stars of the period, Yumeji Tsukioka (who had previously starred in “The Bells of Nagasaki”, another film about survivors of the second atomic bomb dropped on Japan), Eiji Okada, Yoshi Kato, and Isuzu Yamada, alongside an incredible supporting cast which includes many young actors. The performances capture the excruciating physical pain of the victims alongside the shock and sheer terror of what they witnessed and experienced. The sequences of people hobbling and crawling, each step an agony, are particularly moving. The use of large numbers of extras helps gives a sense of the scale of the tragedy, with entire neighbourhoods devastated by the blast. The score by Akira Ifukube is a thrilling orchestral composition that highlights the enormity of what befell at Hiroshima, a devastating eulogy to those who were lost.

“Hiroshima” is an attempt to document and recreate the pain of this event. One of the most powerful scenes comes towards the end when we see the ghosts of those who were killed rise up in silent groups, a powerful memorial to the victims of the bombing. Throughout the film there is a focus on children too, understandably as the script was based on the testimony of young witnesses in Dr. Osada’s book. The film begins with a class full of young people and children feature throughout. Many of these children had their future stolen from them on that day, either through the illnesses they developed, or through the mental strain of dealing with the aftermath. We later see a roving band of orphans begging for food and scavenging for scrap metal to sell, their lives overturned in an instant. The film presents a stark depiction of the events, without dramatizing or exaggerating, simply allowing us to experience a part of what happened and the aftermath. A film that pricks the conscience, with a forceful message that such things should never be forgotten nor repeated.

Labyrinth of Cinema (2019) by Nobuhiko Obayashi

At a seaside cinema, local residents gather for the final night of their closing down film festival to watch a showing of several war films. Among the patrons are three young men, film fanatic Mario (Takuro Atsuki), history buff Hosuke (Takahito Hosoyamada), and a young gang member Shigeru (Yoshihiko Hosoda), as well as a mysterious young girl name Noriko (Rei Yoshida). Also present is a man who has recently arrived from a spaceship, Fanta G. (Yukihiro Takahashi) (You didn’t think an Obayashi film would be that straightforward, did you?). When a lightning storm strikes, the three young men find themselves transported into the films with Noriko, who they swear to protect from the violence raging around them. What follows is a journey through Japanese military and literary history as they travel from old black-and-white samurai films through the action-packed Second World War epics, and later to that fateful day in 1945 when the atomic bomb was dropped on Hiroshima.

From the off it is clear that Obayashi (House, Hanagatami) intends to create something that is not so much a film as a monument to the past, a celebration of cinema, and a stirring political screed. Fanta G. sets the tone early on as he tells us about certain historical events from his objective fourth-wall breaking perspective. Throughout the film text appears on screen to give historical details, and at times “Labyrinth of Cinema” feels more like a history lesson or documentary than a conventional narrative. That is not to say that it is boring. By having the three young men travel into the films we are given not only the filmic version of historical events, but their modern take on them, along with explanations of the real history. Obayashi employs his familiar collage approach to film-making, with abundant use of blue screen, frenetic camera direction, brightly coloured scenes, and this hand-made, stitched together look gives everything a unique charm. The framing device of the three men being drawn into the films gives some sense of structure, but for the most part it is a more experiential approach. It can be confusing, with the characters jumping back and forth through time periods, in and out of the films they are watching, and at a certain point you have to give up attempting to make logical sense of it and just let it wash over you like a mesmeric psychedelic phantasmagoria. The film can be moving when it needs to be, particularly as it moves towards the tragedy of Hiroshima, building tension through the cumulation of these various historical tragedies. The main cast do a great job with the unconventional material, charismatic enough to hold their own against the frenetic camerawork and colourful visuals. The large supporting cast includes film directors Isshin Inudo and Makoto Tezuka, and Tadanobu Asano among others, again giving the film a collaborative feel that draws you in with the enthusiasm all involved clearly have for cinema.

Obayashi is a lifelong anti-war auteur and film fanatic and “Labyrinth of Cinema” is a poignant tribute to war films, highlighting the virtues expressed in them, and the joy of gung-ho action, whilst condemning the terrible atrocities that were committed. Film lovers can luxuriate in this three-hour epic which captures that experience of being completely enraptured in a film. Obayashi’s love of cinema shines through, as well as his conviction that art has the power to change the world. The character of Noriko at first seems like a heroine that these brave men are trying to rescue. However, as things progress and we see her in each time period, we learn that she signifies much more. Her name, it is explained, means “Child of Hope”, and it is this hope that the protagonists are trying to protect; they are fighting to maintain their own innocence in the face of centuries of war and horrors. The hope that the next generation of children will not fall prey to the same violent tendencies that marred the past. The film is also strewn with the poems of Chuya Nakashima, further emphasising the contrast between the beauty of creation through art, with the terrible destructive consequences of war. The length and arthouse style typical of Obayashi’s oeuvre are here used to deliver a powerful experience that sheds light on the history of film, warfare and humanity’s contradictory nature in its propensity towards both violence and hope.

Grave of the Fireflies (1988) by Isao Takahata

A harrowing story of suffering in the aftermath of war. The film begins in September, 1945. A young boy, Seita (Tsutomu Tatsumi), is slumped, exhausted, in a station as people pass by him. Seita tells us in narration that this is the day he died. Later a cleaner finds a candy tin full of ashes beside his body and throws it out. Fireflies appear from the tin and the spirit of Seita’s young sister Setsuko (Ayano Shiraishi) who warmly greets her brother as he heads off with her. We are then taken back to the two siblings when they were alive, living with their mother. Seito’s father is a navy officer away on duty. When their town is firebombed, Seita and Setsuko are forced to flee their home. Their mother later dies at the hospital and the two travel to live with an aunt in an unfamiliar town. The aunt is at first happy to provide for them, but soon grows impatient, begrudging them food and a roof as she cares for her own children. Finally growing tired of constant put-downs, Seita takes his sister to live in an air-raid shelter. The two struggle as food shortages grow and the town comes under threat from further attack.

Based on a semi-autobiographical short story by Akiyuki Nosaka, “Grave of the Fireflies” is incredibly moving as we see the horrors of war as experienced by the two orphans, starving and alone. There are a few lighter moments as we see them playing together and the strength of their relationship. It is poignant to watch as Seita attempts to provide for his sister and protect her innocence by not telling her about their mother’s passing. Writer and director Isao Takahata crafts a story that is simple yet packed with the minutiae of everyday life, from daily chores to the children playing together each moment is carefully observed. The animation is very understated with a slow melancholic feel to it. The subtle details add great texture to the world, such as the itching of the characters that grows as the film progresses, and the small insects that come to symbolise the struggles of the two siblings. In lingering shots of a dying firefly, or brief moments of ants scurrying under cracked pavement stones, the fragility and beauty of everyday life is brought to the fore. Michiyo Mamiya’s classical score is used sparingly, welling up at times as an emotional release to the narrative.

“Grave of the Fireflies” captures a period in history that many would like to forget. The suffering of war is often romanticised, or sanitised in sepia photographs of fallen soldiers, or quiet graveyards. Here we are shown the true horror of war, with burn victims, malnutrition, frayed tempers, and people trying their best to survive an unbearable situation. The film also shows the importance of laughter and living. Though Setsuko’s life is short, each moment we see her laugh or smile with her brother we are given a sense of the importance of life. The metaphor of the fireflies, who burn brightly for a brief time, is unmistakable here, yet in the delicate depictions of the quotidian it never feels forced. As the war comes to an end, we see people returning to their hometown full of joy and relief at the end of their struggles, while Seita carries with him the weight of his sister’s death. This powerful message, about not forgetting the victims of war, is further emphasised in the final moments. Seita and Setsuko sit on a hill looking down on the skyscrapers of a modern city, in the darkness, forgotten to the world, yet watching over them. Far from an easy watch, this reminder of suffering carries an important warning to future generations not to repeat the humanity’s past mistakes.

Hanagatami (2017) by Nobuhiko Obayashi

As the second world war looms, a group of teenagers are drawn together by friendships and romances that will come to define them. 17 year old Toshihiko (Shunsuke Kubozuka) becomes good friends with two of his classmates, the stoic and philosophical Kira (Keishi Nagatsuka) and the cool and inspiring Ukai (Shinnosuke Mitsushima). He admires both for their apparent lack of fear and mature outlook on life, which contrast sharply with Takashi’s own wide-eyed naivety. Meanwhile, Mina (Honoka Miki) is confined to her room through tuberculosis, looked after by her widowed sister-in-law, Takashi’s aunt (Takako Tokiwa). Her friends Akine (Hirona Yamazaki) and Chitose (Mugi Kadowaki) come to visit her in her room, attempting to keep up her spirits in the face of her terminal illness. As the war grows nearer they are forced to confront the various tragedies that await them.

Nobuhiko Obayashi’s (House) final work is a colourful, experimental, impressionist look at youth in the lead up to war. Based on a 1937 novella by his friend Kazuo Dan, Obayashi sat on the completed script for the film for forty years before finally deciding the time was right to direct. The film is set in Katsura and the production recruited many locals as staff and extras. The use of Katsura’s cultural festival makes the film historically significant as it is the first time this has been filmed.

“Hanagatami” is full of Obayashi’s inimitable style and bizarre directorial choices. The film is bookended with narration explaining that it is based on a book and throughout it often engenders a sense of dramatic alienation from the action. The early sequences in particular play with notions of time and place as characters step between scenes. The use of superimposed images, digital effects and often inexplicable decisions such as reversing camera angles during dialogue scenes all characterise Obayashi’s style. It is something akin to looking at a collage composed of various scraps of ideas, beautiful and bizarre imagery, that helps to build up a whole picture of theme, place and character. The film uses bold colours and harsh theatrical lighting and there is a sense of surrealism and fantasy woven through the more straightforward teenage drama plot. The performances of the leads, in particular Shunsuke Kubozuka as Toshihiko are theatrically exaggerated caricatures that chime well with the often chaotic style. All of the cast give great performances, including supporting roles from Takehiro Murata as an anti-war teacher and Takako Tokiwa as Takahashi’s aunt. The melodrama of the acting and direction is underscored by a soundtrack that repeats several songs and melodies, each of which come to represent a particular emotion. It is film that is abundant with metaphors, the white snake, the red rose petal becoming a droplet of blood, cherry blossom, the sea, but never dwells on these things or allows them to become the story. The unconventional style and parade of evocative imagery, poetry and philosophical musings are overwhelming at times, but Obayashi always draws us back to the protagonists and their personal journeys through a tale that is rich in universal meaning.

Obayashi has crafted a uniquely engaging and deeply emotional drama that blends traditional and experimental techniques. His style is provocative and will not appeal to everyone. It feels distinct and unfamiliar, with its art-house aesthetic, often almost cartoonish visuals distracting from the story. But if you let go of any preconceptions about how film should be made there is much to enjoy here. The film has a strong anti-war message, in particular noting the futility and horror of war. By showing us the carefree existences of the characters in the build up of hostilities we come to understand everything that is lost in war, innocence, friendships, and hope for the future. The film also gives us a prism through which to see the war, with each character representing a unique view on events and their own impression of what is happening. “Hanagatami” feels like a labour of love for the director and those working on the production. It encapsulates everything that was unique about Obayashi’s work, a timeless yet truly original story.

The Wind Rises (2013) by Hayao Miyazaki

Jiro Horikoshi is a  young man with a passion for aircraft, beginning with childhood dreams of designing his own flying machines. In his dreams he is visited by Caproni, an Italian aircraft designer, who shows him the delight of being an aircraft engineer. His childhood is also marked by a devastating earthquake, during which he meets a young girl, Nahoko Satomi, whom he meets again when they are adults. Jiro’s immense talents for design and love of aircraft land him a job at Mistubishi, creating several aircraft for them, including bombers and fighters. As the 1930’s wear on, Jiro is increasingly concerned about the connection between aircraft and warfare. He hopes that one day he will be able to create beautiful aircraft that will not be used as weapons.

Hayao Miyazaki’s love of aircraft can be seen all the way back with the flying machines of Nausicaa, and “The Wind Rises” allows him to fully explore his passion. Jiro Horikoshi is portrayed as a paradigm of good, whose only wish is to create beauty in an ugly world. Less fantastical than many Ghibli works, “The Wind Rises” plays like a wartime epic whose focus is not on the war, but on the people and aircraft that populated those times. There are numerous crowd scenes that give a genuine sense of society and community. People rushing by, packed together on trains, or scrambling in terror following an earthquake. These vignettes all show a society that is variously shifted by fate in unknown ways, and the idea that the community is a whole rather than a collection of individuals. Jiro’s own life is guided heavily by fate, in particular the wind. The first example of this comes when his hat is blown off and caught by Nahoko. The film shies away from an exploration of war as seen in traditional “war” films. The characters visit Germany in the 1930’s and there is a brief glimpse of the terror that was then engulfing that country, but for the most part discussions of Nazism and Japan’s own wartime exploits go unstated (the film does end before getting into the outbreak of war). We do see Jiro’s final creation, the famed Zero fighter aircraft, as a thing of tragic beauty, appreciating it with the designer’s eyes, while the voice-over explanation that none of these planes returned from conflict offers a grim counterpoint. Where the film triumphs is in its understated message of hope against adversity. Jiro is utterly committed to designing aircraft, and shows a dedication that few will ever be lucky enough to experience. His love for Nahoko is likewise a point of motivation for him. While the world seems to be falling apart through war and natural disaster, the film expresses the importance of fixing your sights on a passion and absolutely dedicating your life to it. An exceptional film that delivers on action and emotion.