One year after the atomic bombing of Hiroshima, journalist John Hersey travelled to Japan to interview six ‘hibakusha’ (‘literally, explosion-affected persons,’ writes Hersey. ‘The Japanese tended to shy away from the term survivors, because in its focus on being alive it might suggest some slight to the sacred dead’), in order to relay accurate firsthand accounts of an event so historically impacting yet impossible to fathom without personally experiencing it.
The result was a 31,000-word article called ‘Hiroshima,’ which took up the entire 31 August, 1946 issue of The New Yorker. Subscribers presumably opened their postboxes to a seemingly typical issue, its cover featuring an illustration of people in a park. It wasn’t until they opened to the first pages and read this:
TO OUR READERS. The New Yorker this week devotes its entire editorial space to an article on the almost complete obliteration of a city by one atomic bomb, and what happened to the people of that city. It does so in the conviction that few of us have yet comprehended the all but incredible destructive power of this weapon, and that everyone might well take time to consider the terrible implications of its use. The Editors.
The article, which was eventually published in book form under the same title, is written in straightforward prose, with Hersey’s pen acting solely as the microphone of a tape recorder. Hersey knew to whom these stories belonged; more importantly, he knew these testimonies weren’t his to adopt.
Instead he diligently reports what he is told, never overtly injecting his voice or opinion in any part of the event and its aftermath. In fact, Hersey’s deliberate technique produces an effect that I’d imagine is worlds stronger than if he were to inject himself somehow into the story. Without the social commentary any experienced reader would expect from a subject so morally questionable, Hersey’s readers themselves are left alone with the six hibakusha, fearfully conducting an interview for which they hadn’t truly prepared.
And because we hadn’t truly prepared ourselves for what actually happened, Hersey’s straightforward description of real testimony reads, for serious lack of any better description on my part, like an apocalypse movie.
Everything fell, and Miss Sasaki lost consciousness. The ceiling dropped suddenly and the wooden floor above collapsed in splinters and the people up there came down and the roof above them gave way; but principally and first of all, the bookcases right behind her swooped forward and the contents threw her down, with her left leg horribly twisted and breaking underneath her. There, in the tin factory, in the first moment of the atomic age, a human being was crushed by books.
During the first arresting scenes of Alain Resnais’ 1959 film Hiroshima mon amour, layered over the images of Hiroshima in ruins, a Frenchwoman and a Japanese man, the two unnamed main characters of the story, who find themselves locked in a passionate love affair that is destined to be doomed, speak closely to one another.
The woman: ‘I’ve always wept over Hiroshima’s fate.’
The man: ‘No. What was there for you to weep over?’
The woman: ‘I saw the newsreels.’
The man: ‘You saw nothing in Hiroshima.’
Perhaps he’s right: perhaps she didn’t. But she is convinced that the pain she feels is real because she feels it. Just like the painful love she feels for him. She can reason all she wants: she’ll go back to her family in Paris, he’ll stay in Hiroshima with his, and soon the two will forget everything. But truthfully she knows that forgotten memories are just as non-guaranteed as memory itself. Halfway through the film the woman says, ‘The only memory I have left is your name.’ By the end, she takes it upon herself to name him: ‘Hi-ro-shi-ma. That’s your name.’
And like the man’s namesake, the event that forever defined a city will probably never be forgotten, regardless of whether we want to or not.
Why is it that, at various moments in our lives, we feel like it’s just like the movies?
I felt personally connected to Hiroshima mon amour, but why? I’ve never had to say goodbye to a lover like that before (and I hope I never do). What does it mean when so much of our emotions, whenever they make themselves felt in real life, had already been triggered for the first time from something artificial?
With pop culture media being as powerful (read: ubiquitous) as it is is today, films and books and music have been viable soap boxes for voicing socio-political opinions. A generation and a half ago, artists had much to say about World War II. (In fact, it is often said that WWII was just one of many parents giving birth to a new artistic era, postmodernism.)
It has gone further in our post-9/11 society, with many artists deciding to place their fictive universes against the backdrop of 9/11, regardless of whether or not the event held any personal significance to them at all. (Some works are so atrociously exploitative, however, that it can be easy to tell the difference.)
Artists today can’t, and probably shouldn’t, all make the stylistic choices that Hersey and Resnais chose for their respective successes. But it is important for artists to continue, and not be afraid, to draw upon significant historical and current events in order to produce and create; it just must be done honestly and responsibly. As the woman in Hiroshima mon amour says: ‘Looking closely at things is something that has to be learned.’ And when an artist has learned, whatever she produces will certainly not be scrutinised for its authenticity and genuineness. Instead, we’ll see her story. It’ll be there plainly, right before our eyes, for all of us to see.