29 January 2010

Pica-don (ピカドン, 1978)

Short animation is a very expressive media art form of immeasurable energy. Renzo and I believed in the unlimited possibilities of the medium of animation. We put all of our heart and soul into the making of the film ‘Pica-don’, which is one of our representative works. Based on the notes and drawings made by the unfortunate victims of the A-bomb, this film encapsulates their strong appeal for eternal world peace.
– Sayoko Kinoshita

Fifteen years ago the Smithsonian bowed to pressure from American air force veterans to gut their planned exhibition about the bombing of Hiroshima of the carefully researched historical context organized by then director of the Smithsonian’s National Air and Space Museum Dr. Martin O. Harwitt. Dr. Harwitt had the delicate task of balancing the views of American veterans, who view the A-bomb as a measure that saved lives by ending the war, with the views of the Japanese, who view the bombing as a crime against humanity. At the same time, Dr. Harwitt tried to take into account the recommendations of historians, and while this excellent review of his book on the controversy which led to the abrupt termination of his employment at the Smithsonian does not mention it, I am sure there was also pressure from countries like China and South Korea to make sure that Japan was not shown merely as a victim of war.

It can be truly called a travesty that the Smithsonian bowed to outside pressure to remove the historical data from the exhibition. The action is tantamount to Japanese school boards expunging from elementary and secondary school history books the war crimes committed by Japan throughout Asia during the 1930s and 1940s. History is not a matter of black and white and right and wrong. It is a messy and convoluted affair.

I have read a lot of accounts of the first and second world wars from the perspective of many different people: American, British, Korean, Japanese, Chinese, Dutch, and South African. My interest perhaps comes out of the fact that I grew up in Canada where I learned in school about the British and Canadian war effort all the while knowing that the only member of my family to have served and lost his life in the war was my German great-uncle whose loss devastated my grandmother’s family. This has meant that I have never had a black and white understanding of war. When I hear people taking the moral high ground in order to justify war (past and present), it makes me feel ill.

In terms of the Pacific War, there are three accounts that I find particularly moving. The first is Agnes Newton Keith’s memoir Three Came Home. It tells of her experiences as a Japanese prisoner of war along with her young son in Borneo. In the preface of her book she writes of her desire to let others understand the horrors of war: “I want others to shudder with me at it.” Yet at the same time, she refuses to hate the Japanese for the suffering she endured at the hands of Japanese soldiers. She writes: “The Japanese in this book are as war made them, not as God did, and the same is true of the rest of us. We are not pleasant people here, for the story of war is always the story of hate, it makes no difference with whom one fights. The hate destroys you spiritually as the fighting destroys you bodily.” (p.9)

The Japanese have also told of the suffering of war through the eyes of the innocent very effectively. The two most powerful films for me are both animations – Isao Takahata’s Grave of the Fireflies (Hotaru no Haka, 1988) and Renzō and Sayoko Kinoshita’s Pica-don (ピカドン, 1978). While only 10 minutes in length, Pica-don, is an immensely powerful film that depicts the morning the A-bomb destroyed Hiroshima. It is an intense experience to watch the film and it has been used to teach children about the atom bomb in schools around the world.

The film, which was based on victims’ testimonies and drawings, depicts the people of Hiroshima waking up on a typical hot and sunny summer’s morning. The first sound that we hear is the ticking of a clock over the title card. Its noise is like a countdown to the bomb, deliberately heightening our anticipation of the event. When the mother opens the sliding doors to let in fresh air, the sound of the ticking clock is drowned out by the buzz of cicadas. It was a Monday, and a family with a young son and pre-teen daughter are getting ready for school and work. A sentimental piano score accompanies the scene. As spectators, these images of family and typical morning routines are instantly recognizable and designed to invite us to identify closely with the average citizens of Hiroshima.

As the children and father leave the house, the film follows them as they interact with other people in their community. Particular emphasis is placed on mothers and young children, the beauty of the natural world, and the peacefulness of the city. A child throwing a stone into a pond. Pink flowers in full bloom. The approaching terror is foreshadowed by shots of the sky, the flash of sunlight on the waters of the pond, and the ticking sound of the clock returning. Shadows fall on a man’s face as he looks up in fear at some approaching military planes, but it is not yet the Enola Gay. The clock keeps ticking.

Men and women are shown working in factories in support of the war effort. As planes pass overheard, air raid alarms ring. The sentimental music returns to accompany a montage of images of a variety of people going about their daily business. At the end of the sequence, a young boy throws a paper airplane off the balcony of a house and falls to the ground instead of flying. The music ceases abruptly, and the Enola Gray is shown approaching the city. Kinoshita intercuts between the point of view from the plane to images of people looking up at the plane. Deep shadows cut into their faces as they look up, just as the bomb begins to fall onto the unsuspecting city.

First comes ‘pika’, the great flash of light, which drains colour from the images of people and the flowers leaving just a two tone image. Then comes ‘don’, the explosion which crumbles the iconic Hiroshima Prefectural Industrial Promotion Hall – now known as Genbaku Dome (Atom Bomb Dome: see image at top of page). The blast blows the skin off of people and flattens huge swathes of the city. The horrors of the explosion are shown graphically: people with melted skin stumbling off of streetcars, a breastfeeding woman wrapping her arms around her infant to try to protect it with her own skin melting like candle wax over the child, a schoolgirl staring incoherently at her mangled hands, and even more gruesome sights. This sequence ends with a photograph of the Genbaku Dome sight after the event with a lone animated figure lying in the rubble.

The image then abruptly fades into a nostalgic reprise of the boy throwing his paper airplane, but this time, when he releases the plane, it flies from the past (represented by the boy’s house) into a modern-day city. The sentimental music has returned as the plane flies over an idealized countryside then the shadow the paper airplane falls on the modern day skyscrapers of Hiroshima as the plane flies over the city. The message of this final scene suggests that although the city has rebuilt itself, the shadow of the past still haunts the people who live there.

Few could deny the emotional impact of the film which has been skillfully hand animated by Renzō and Sayoko Kinoshita. The accompanying book, which has been reprinted in time for the 65th anniversary of the attacks, contains beautifully rendered stills from the short animation. An attempt has been made to provide historical information in both Japanese and English about the bombing of Hiroshima, some reactions to the film from prominent academic figures, as well as an afterword by Sayoko Kinoshita. I think that the book would have been more successful if the editor had chosen to keep the message as simple and straightforward as the film does.

To begin with, the ‘historical’ information, which has clearly been written in Japanese first and translated roughly into English, is propagandistic in nature. Where the veterans opposing the Smithsonian exhibition in 1995 did not want the Japanese portrayed as victims, the Pica-don book oversimplifies the political situation at the end of the war in order to give the impression that the Japanese people were purely the victims of cruel political maneuvering on the parts of the American and the Soviet Union. Both of these extreme points of view make me feel frankly nauseous because they fail to consider the event in all of its complexity. While it is my own personal opinion from having read widely on the subject that the dropping of the bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki was not necessary in order to win the war, at the same time it is foolish for anyone to paint Japan as an innocent victim of a war crime. The way in which the text is worded reminded me of the controversy surrounding Yasukuni shrine and the scandal of Japanese high school textbooks that obscure the war crimes that the Japanese military committed throughout Asia during the Pacific War. The Pica-don book should have just given the date, location, and time at the beginning, explained the meaning of ‘pica-don’ and allowed the images to speak for themselves. The message of the film, without any addition of narration, is clear in its anti-atom bomb message.

The other drawback to this otherwise beautiful book is that the English translation of the Japanese text is littered with errors. It seems a shame that for this revised edition the publisher was unable to hire a native English-speaking editor for the text. Some of the worst mistakes are inexplicable. For example, Marcel Martin is said to be the chief editor of ‘Ecrin’, a very poor romanization of エクラン, which of course is the French word ‘Écran’ (screen). This really would have required only the simplest of fact-checking considering that Marcel Martin is a French-speaker. A little more research would have found that this information is a bit out of date seeing as Écran, a Québécois animation journal, stopped publishing in 1979. Would it have taken much more effort to get a couple of the current members of ASIFA to write about the impact the film has had in the past 32 years? Very unprofessionally done, and it mars an otherwise stirring tribute to the memory of the victims of Hiroshima and to the memory of animation artist Renzō Kinoshita.

Despite the faults of the text, the book is certainly worth buying for fans of Japanese art animation or as an educational tool. In fact, the strongly worded ‘historical’ context section does at least provide great material for a classroom debate on the ethicality of the atom bomb. The book can be purchased at yesasia or amazon.co.jp. As far as I am aware, none of the Kinoshitas’ films are currently available on DVD and only very low-quality versions are currently circulating on the internet. Kinoshita is on my DVD wishlist for 2010 (artists I wish would become available on DVD). Sayoko Kinoshita continues to support the work of animation artists from around the world at the Hiroshima International Animation Festival which is celebrating its 25th anniversary this summer. For more on the Kinoshitas, read my earlier post here.

© Catherine Munroe Hotes 2010