Gaming Editor Louis Wright explores how the bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki have had a long-lasting impact on Japanese cinema
As Oppenheimer (2023) receives critical and commercial praise in cinemas for the quality of its craft and its explorations of the morality of the nuclear bomb, it raises the idea of the impact that the existence of a nuclear armament has had on the cultural output of humanity. Clearly seen in cinema produced during or about the Cold War focusing intently on the imminent nuclear holocaust at the hands of the Soviet Union and USA, the threat of death that the nuclear bomb so often represents creates a notably depressing tonal gash in many films of the era.
Where the Wind Blows (1986) for instance (based off of the comic of the same name), explores the life of an elderly British couple trying to survive in the fallout of a devastating nuclear attack. The film is bleak, harrowing; a true representation of the fears that mired the global populace . Even blockbusters such as The Terminator (1984) use an endless nuclear wasteland as the final battlefield of a dying humanity, with Skynet being a literal representation of a cold, unfeeling enemy hellbent on using the nuclear stockpiles at humanity’s disposal regardless of the consequence.
However, Western cinema’s various depictions of the nuclear bomb are often separated from the gravity that the threat of nuclear armageddon holds. Where the Wind Blows is about the Soviet-Afghan War, which while allegorical is a distinct separation from the Cold War’s Soviet-American tensions. The Terminator presents its nuclear wasteland with a hopeful spin, where Skynet can possibly be defeated and humanity saved.
Japanese cinema is completely devoid of this separation.
Being the only country in history to suffer a direct nuclear attack, the landscape of Japanese media was influenced by the bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki in a way that is still felt prominently to this day. The consistent depiction of the nuclear bomb as a form of true death, a complete end to existence, and the inevitability and unavoidableness of its destruction, lest for a greater evil, make for the rawest representations of the horrors humanity brought upon itself.
The Kaiju (strange beast) genre, birthed and stoked from the fears of post-war Japan, consistently sees nuclear armament depicted in such a fashion. The beasts that constantly loom over and threaten life in Japan act as this ‘true death’.
Godzilla (1954), both the film and the titular character, is easily the most culturally impactful of films of this mantle. Throughout the film, an unspeakable, unstoppable monster of unknown and untold origins, rages through Japan ravaging military targets and civilian towns alike. In its wake is nothing but destruction and death stemming from its sheer colossal nature, atomic breath, and the nuclear fallout it leaves in its path.
While intentionally unsubtle in its allegory. The uncertainty for the future, the bleakness of the events at hand, the seemingly insurmountable odds of saving traditional culture, and the changing world in the face of the monster were all faced by those displaced from Hiroshima and Nagasaki, as well as the Japanese government and people.
It is interesting to consider the evolution and ‘westernisation’ of Godzilla over time when viewing the character as an allegory for the nuclear bomb. Whereas in its traditional, Japanese, depiction it is solely a beast of destruction, the co-opted, American, depiction seen in Godzilla: King of Monsters (2019) is a misunderstood protector of humanity from others of its ilk. These contrasts offer an interesting perspective on the treatment of an allegory of the nuclear bomb from the country that launched the only nuclear strike in history and the country that suffered for it.
Expanding past the influences of the bombings on the Kaiju genre, Japanese films following the attack would often explore the societal impacts that people faced in the aftermath.
Black Rain (1989) explores the stigmatism that those surviving the bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki faced. With knowledge of nuclear irradiation being non-existent during the time period, the rest of the country faced the potential of the refugees from the cities irradiating others. The film explores this concept from the perspective of a family of refugees who are trying to find a husband for the youngest woman and the prejudice they face for being survivors of the bombings.
In This Corner of the World (2016) is a more recent film showing the lingering impacts that the destruction of the cities have. The obliteration of Hiroshima and Nagasaki resulted in a tremendous loss of life and culture, therefore by contrasting the city of Hiroshima before and after the bombing, In This Corner of the World conveys the true scope of this loss. Carrying itself through the perspective of a singular woman with a love for producing art, the film draws a more personal connection to the true scale of destruction Japan faced.
There are many ways the decimation of Hiroshima and Nagasaki influenced Japan as a country. The end of their war with America, the displacement of thousands of Japanese people from the cities, the anxiety of the sheer power of the a-bomb, among many others, were marked events that stem from that moment. However the cultural influence this has had on Japanese cinema cannot be understated.
Even to this day we see films that explore all of this, the worry, the threat, the fear, the true death, that the nuclear bomb represents. As a country Japan and its people are uniquely equipped to explore these themes and what it means to their culture, with the influence that cinema guided by these ideas has had not only domestically but internationally.