Apocalypse ’45


This movie shows you why they call them The Greatest Generation.

(2020) War Documentary (Abramorama/DiscoveryItsei Nakagawa. Directed by Erik Nelson

Newscaster Tom Brokaw coined the term “The Greatest Generation” to describe those who lived through and fought in the Second World War, and the term fits. It was a generation that knew the meaning of sacrifice and the meaning of valor. Much of what this country achieved in the second half of the twentieth century was largely due to the spirit and tenacity of those war years, lifting our country out of a crippling economic depression to political, cultural and financial dominance from the 1950s onward.

This film, timed to coincide with the 75th anniversary of VJ day (the cessation of hostilities in the Pacific Theater), was taken from over 700 reels of color footage that have been sitting in the National Archives, largely unseen. There is a reason for that – some of the footage is graphic, showing dead bodies, mangled bodies, irradiated bodies and a Japanese woman stepping off of a cliff in the Marianas Islands rather than letting the American troops take her alive. This isn’t for sensitive souls.

The footage has been digitally restored to 4K standards and looks almost contemporary. Also, Nelson – rather than fitting the film with stentorian narration like so many documentaries of the war – utilizes interviews with men who served in the Pacific. Now in their 90s, they are occasionally cantankerous and always compelling. They offer a viewpoint of modern society (which creeps in) that is unique but well-earned.

The footage concentrates on the last six months of the war, from the Battle of Manila freeing the Philippines (as MacArthur made good on his promise to return) through the Battle of Iwo Jima – I was struck watching marines arriving on the island in troop carriers and wondered how many of them didn’t make it home – the fierce fighting on Okinawa which convinced the military and political leaders of the United States that a protracted invasion of Japan would be ruinously costly in terms of American lives and resources, the firebombing of Tokyo and the dropping of the atomic bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki.

That footage is largely narrated by Itsei Nakagawa, who was 15 years old at the time and attending school in the center of the city of Hiroshima, but miraculously escaped death and radiation poisoning; he is a naturalized American citizen now, retired and living in the San Francisco Bay Area. His eyewitness testimony provides context unlike almost anything you’ve ever seen, except for maybe the incredible but little-seen documentary Message from Hiroshima. The debate on the morality of dropping those bombs continues to be discussed with no clear consensus.

The movie personalizes the war like no other documentary I’ve seen and in that sense is comparable to Peter Jackson’s amazing They Shall Not Grow Old. The spirit of both films is similar, although the testimony of the veterans in this film is tailored more to the images onscreen. Also, like Jackson’s film, this movie overstays its welcome a little bit and you may end up a little numb by the time the closing credits roll. That’s more a testament to our shorter attention spans today than anything else.

This is definitely worth the attention of any history buff. It is currently playing in limited virtual cinematic release (see below for a link to participating theaters) but for those who don’t mind waiting it will be broadcast on the Discovery Channel starting Labor Day weekend..

REASONS TO SEE: The color footage is amazing. The testimony of the various soldiers and sailors who fought give a personal feeling.
REASONS TO AVOID: A little too long and too graphic for the sensitive sorts.
FAMILY VALUES:  There is war violence and some grisly images.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The exact number of dead in the atomic blasts in Hiroshima and Nagasaki will never be known; it is estimated that 126,000-229,000 were killed, but those numbers are considered to be conservative.
BEYOND THE THEATER: Virtual Cinematic Experience
CRITICAL MASS: As of 8/28/20: Rotten Tomatoes: 100% positive reviews; Metacritic: No score yet.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: World War 2 in Color
FINAL RATING: 7.5/10
NEXT:
After So Many Days

Message From Hiroshima


It's the devastation you can't see that will move you.

It’s the devastation you can’t see that will move you.

(2015) Documentary (Cinema Libre) George Takei (voice), Kazuo Fukushima, Akinori Ueda, Ryoga Suwa, Hisako Miyake, Kinue Nakamitsu, Chieko Fujiki, Yoshie Oka, Junko Ohta, Kyoko Nakamura, Noboru Hirabayashi, Sumiko Uesugi, Takuji Enami, Akia Nakazawa, Tsuneo Kasai, Nenkai Aoyama, Haruto Oda, Isao Toi, Yoshie Nakatani, Masako Nishida, Sadako Imada. Directed by Masaaki Tanabe

The American attitude towards the atomic bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki is essentially, “Well, they brought it on themselves, and it saved millions of American lives in the process.” For the most part, Americans believe that these bombings were justified.

Message From Hiroshima may change all that. Director Masaaki Tanabe was seven years old and a resident of the Nakajima district in central Hiroshima on August 6, 1945. Fears of American bombings of a more conventional nature had led his parents to send him to stay with his grandmother 32 miles away when the bomb hit. His mother and brother were killed in the blast; his father died two weeks later from the burns he sustained. To say that this is a personal project for him would be an understatement.

The film mostly consists of anecdotal accounts of life in Hiroshima before the bomb, the devastation caused by the bomb and the effects on the community afterwards. The domed Industrial Promotion Hall – once the pride of the city where exhibits on exports from the town were regularly given and where government offices were located – which was reduced to a shell (seen in the photo above) and is the only building in the district (if you can call it a building anymore) that remains as a stark reminder of the devastation. Across the river where Nakajima was located, a peace park full of monuments to the fallen (a burial mound of remains of unknown citizens is also located here) that is both beautiful and sad.

Jocelyn Cervenka created computer graphic re-creations of the Nakajima based on photographs and survivor descriptions that are used to great effect here. They display a vibrant city center, full of shops and restaurants as well as residences. In the background, the river flows, the heart of the city. George Takei from Star Trek who has his own horror stories from the war, narrates wonderfully and describes how the citizens of Hiroshima were once very in tune with the river; bathing, swimming, diving from the various bridges and fishing were regular parts of the lives of the citizens of Hiroshima. One of the casualties of the war is that, according to Takei, that is no longer the case. I would love to see her graphics made available online so that people can take an interactive tour of Nakashima. It would not only be instructive but a lovely way to preserve that lost world forever.

The accounts of the survivors are incredibly moving and to see how raw the wounds continue to be for these now elderly people, youngsters when the bomb was dropped, still are 70 years after the fact. Watching them break down into tears as they describe seeing the devastation, of waiting for parents who never came to claim them, of not even finding bones of their loved ones for them to bury (those close enough to ground zero, which was essentially where Nakajima was, were vaporized by the heat of the blast). Listening to these accounts makes me wonder how Japan was able to move on from this kind of wound.

But this isn’t an anti-United States film. What it is mostly is a means of preserving a way of life that is now a distant memory for elderly citizens of a city that was beautiful in 1945 and continues to be today, but has been indelibly changed by the experience. The movie is only 52 minutes long and I suspect it couldn’t be any longer because as human beings, we couldn’t handle the deep emotions for much more than the time we are given here.

I will admit that I’m one of those Americans who looked on the nuclear annihilation of Hiroshima and Nagasaki as necessary evils. I no longer think that’s the case after viewing this movie. Anyone who thinks that detonating a nuclear device is a solution to anything should be made to watch this movie. Should we have foregone the nuclear option and instead mounted a conventional invasion of Japan that would have cost millions of lives both American and Japanese? Honestly, that’s the kind of dilemma that makes me glad I’m not President; Truman must have grappled with this for years after the fact. I don’t know that what happened to the people of Hiroshima and Nagasaki are worth the lives that were saved, I honestly don’t. I will say that for me at least, Hiroshima is no longer just a few paragraphs in a history book. The meaning is far more intense and personal to me now. I urge anyone who can see this film. It’s a life changer.

While the movie is making the rounds in one-off exhibitions usually sponsored by churches or peace organizations, it is also available on Amazon and can be viewed free for Amazon Prime subscribers. If you’re interested, you can view it here. I strongly urge that you do.

REASONS TO GO: Emotionally devastating. Short anecdotes of survivor accounts effective. Computer graphics work nicely. May change your mind about the nuclear option.
REASONS TO STAY: May be too disturbing for some.
FAMILY VALUES: Disturbing images, graphic descriptions of carnage and adult themes.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: There is nothing trivial about this.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 9/11/15: Rotten Tomatoes: No score yet. Metacritic: No score yet.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: The Fog of War
FINAL RATING: 10/10
NEXT: Best of Enemies