White Light / Black Rain : Interview with Hiroshima and Nagasaki Documentary Director

I spoke to director Steven Okazaki about unfortunate timelessness of this story of death, destruction and war in his film White Light / Black Rain.
07/31/2007 04:41 pm ET Updated Nov 17, 2011

White Light/ Black Rain: The Destruction of Hiroshima and Nagaski is a thoughtful, moving and frighteningly relevant documentary which sheds light on the history and the present-day legacy of the use of the atomic bomb. The film gives voice to the silenced survivors of the bomb while at the same time including the reflections and memories of the Americans who carried out the bombing. After seeing the premiere of the HBO documentary at the Asia Society in New York City, I spoke to director Steven Okazaki about the unfortunate timelessness of this story of death, destruction and war. White Light / Black Rain premieres on HBO on August 6th at 7:30p.m., the 62nd anniversary of the bombing of Hiroshima.

This film tells a story that is over 60 years old. What relevance does the film have today?

We used some propaganda films and in one the former ambassador to Japan is describing the Japanese people. All you have to do is exchange the word Japanese with Arab and it's the same description, the same excuse for going to war: It's a 2,000-year-old culture and religion and the people don't care about life on earth because they'll be rewarded in heaven. Of course it's also a description of Christianity. How you make it okay to kill people is you make them really foreign and abstract. And I think that the film has a disturbing relevance now and the possibility of nuclear weapons is closer to home now. I think there's a really strong curiosity today because we're living in a world where people are aware of how dangerous this is. I'm startled that people have been so interested in the film. I expected more denial, more avoidance. It's really gratifying to see how much interest there is in the story.

At the HBO screening you invited a survivor, Shigeko Sasamori, who was 13 when the bomb was dropped on Hiroshima, as well as Theodore "Dutch" Van Kirk, a navigator of the Enola Gay plane that dropped the bomb on Hiroshima. Shigeko was adamant that the bombs were unjustifiable, while Dutch insisted that the bomb was a necessary evil that saved more lives than it claimed. Yet both expressed an equally anti-war stance and oppose the use of nuclear warfare. In other words both the survivor and the navigator say "never again." But how much does the lesson and moral of the bombing depend on the legitimacy of the dropping of the bomb.

People get lost in that argument as if the belief that the bomb was justifiable means that nuclear weapons are a good thing. Dutch refutes that. He thinks the bomb was justifiable but is adamantly against it. That was what was interesting about Dutch and the other American guys as well. They are adamant that the bomb was justifiable but also adamantly against nuclear weapons. It scares the crap out of them.

In terms of the numbers, it's not about the numbers it's about the need to justify the use of the bomb. You can't argue a piece of history that never happened. You can speculate. Basically, you're arguing how stubborn was the Japanese government, how stubborn was the Japanese mentality, were they that suicidal? And it seems to me then you should ask the Japanese, not the historians, would you have let 10 million of your people die. But strangely that's not the way people research that question.

Another important part of the film was showing the death and disease that followed the bombing and this again seems like something that's been left out. People talk about the number of the people who were obliterated and turned into ash, but not the fallout. This seems frighteningly relevant to the way we discuss casualties today.

Everyone talks about the 140,000 people dying in Hiroshima and the 70,000 in Nagasaki as if it were conventional bombing. And to leave out what makes the bomb different is that it killed 200,000 people more from radiation is a strange kind of denial and really is an important part of the story. People leave out the horror of all those radiation deaths where people were completely healthy and then all of a sudden they were dead. Whenever I'm thinking about this, how the situation of the survivors is now, or how they're neglected by the Japanese government or how Americans aren't paying attention to it, you have to remember we also have all these radiation survivors here from nuclear tests in Nevada, or veterans from Bikini island. And they had a brief moment when someone paid attention to them but now they're back in obscurity, their problems continue, the government's avoidance of them continues. As the Hiroshima person said in the film, the Japanese government is just waiting for us to die and I think that's absolutely the feeling of the atomic veterans and the down-winders right now, as well.

How did this project start?

My sister was taking an Asian-American studies class and at that point I had graduated from film school. I was doing a lot of work on commercials and I really wasn't doing much and my mom called to remind me that my sister was nearby, across the bay in San Francisco. So she said she could use some help because she was struggling in school. So I called her up and she said she was taking an Asian-American studies class and had to write a paper. And there was an organization of Hiroshima and Nagasaki survivors and I thought this would be a great way to find an interview . And then I went and called my sister. And she said, "Well I already dropped the class."

But I asked the director if I could sit in on their meeting. He explained it was a sensitive subject and thought people would feel uncomfortable with me just sitting there. And he said, "Why don't you bring a film and show it" and I said, "Well my movies aren't really appropriate, they're children's films." But he said, that was fine. So I went over and showed them an eight-minute movie on racism I had made and one of the women in the group stood up after the film and said "I think Mr. Osaka should make a film about us." That was in 1980.

I immediately jumped in. The director of the group said one of the survivors is sick and you should really film her. So we just started rolling and the local PBS station put up a little money. And they had a local news program there so I shot a 10-minute piece on a survivor who was Japanese American. She had married a Japanese person attached to the diplomatic corps and she had gone back there and was stuck there during the war with her son. She was dying of thyroid cancer which is a typical radiation-related condition. I produced this film, Survivors. It was my first documentary. And there had been nothing on the subject so it got a fairly good response. But I vowed to try it again at a later point.

Why did you vow to do it again? What about Survivors were you unhappy with?

It was mostly me, I didn't have the skills, the emotional maturity to do the film, and I was kind of intimidated by the subject and the politeness and niceness of the subjects. I didn't press them. I think usually I tried to absorb the mood of the character but I think I was really intimidated by the subject and didn't ask the hard questions. And it took me a long time to get comfortable and get curious enough to ask the questions I wanted to ask. I think people have a lot of discomfort with the subject, with you terrible physical injuries or emotional strains. And you transfer a lot of your own discomfort if you're talking to someone who has terrible physical scars and is going through a lot. Or, on the other hand, people have a kind of reverence for survivors and treat them almost as if they're children.

How did you get over that self-censorship?

I would continue to meet survivors and quite often survivors don't have a real opportunity to tell their stories and sometimes if you're open to it and interested, people really want to share their stories. They don't really have the opportunity to do it, some of them might speak to groups but it's often at a high school level and often they have a rehearsed presentation. But it's rare for them to be able to talk about it. Even in Hiroshima and Nagasaki, they're very uncomfortable.

How much do you think your role as an outsider, as someone who doesn't live there and isn't totally part of the culture, was helpful? Since it is a taboo subject within Japan, were people relieved to be speaking with someone from the outside?

I think so. I think not being from Japanese culture helps because there are a lot of things that are awkward to ask so Japanese people don't ask certain types of questions. But sometimes with Americans, I don't think people are totally revealing. They sometimes want to please outsiders and don't want to offend any outsiders, so there is also some self-censorship there. So I think it worked as an advantage to be not quite either, not quite American, not quite Japanese.

What is your own family history? Do you remember hearing about Hiroshima and Nagasaki for the first time?

My family is Japanese-American. I'm third generation. My parents were in the internment camps during the war; we have no connection to Hiroshima. I don't think I grew up knowing any more than anyone else I went to school with. Basically you knew the words Hiroshima and the atomic bomb. I think Japanese-Americans talk about it less than anyone and I think the only disappointing part of doing these screenings is the lack of interest on the part of Japanese-Americans. It's awkward because during and after the war Japanese-Americans really tried to distance themselves from Japan. And even though lots of Japanese people are from the Hiroshima area, it's not something people ever talk about openly.

How well did you know your subjects before you filmed them?

I don't like getting to know the subjects too well beforehand; ideally the audience should discover them and get to know them as you do. So we had several community meetings where several survivors would come out.. Often they were shy people but you had the sense they would be good interviewees. The man in the film who lost everyone in his family in Nagasaki is a tour guide who gives tours at the Nagasaki Peace Museum. But he would never tell his story, he would just tell the general story of what happened to everybody. He was in a community meeting with eight men and the others were very vocal. And I said to him, "You haven't really said anything.Andhe said, "I had six brothers...." And then he started to weep. And he got up and walked away and I didn't know anymore than that but I knew I wanted to talk to him.

Have the subjects seen the movie?

They recently did. We had special screenings in Japan a couple of months ago and the reaction was great. Several of the survivors came out smiling.

Why is the ordeal of the survivors such a taboo subject in Japan?

One is the social taboo to talk about yourself in a revealing way that may elicit sympathy. That's just an awkward thing to do for a Japanese person. Being Japanese is to be part of a whole. And to do this is sort of saying, I'm different. One question that I asked people all the time was, When 9/11 happened people in New York at the time who were not directly affected by it or even people who were not in New York on that day still feel like it happened to them. But why is it that in Hiroshima people who were safe from the bomb really separated themselves from those who were badly hurt by the bomb?. And I never really got an answer to that. There was a tremendous amount of prejudice then and it's still very alive and I've seen it myself. I once walked into a coffee shop on the grounds of the Peace Museum with a survivor with facial scars and the whole place looked away. Another survivor with bad facial scars really reaches out to people; he walks into a room with a huge smile on his face, and in Nagasaki people know him. He says adults either ignore him or they come up to him, but it's incredibly painful for him still to see a child start crying and he feels it's a personal thing for him to reach those children and get a smile out of them but sometimes he can't.

What's the future for screenings in Japan?

We did some screenings in Tokyo, Hiroshima and Nagasaki and those went incredibly well. The film is going to be released in Tokyo and elsewhere starting on July 28th. It's going to have a real theatrical run; it's already booked for 14 weeks in Tokyo.