I visited Hiroshima a few years ago, and found it almost unbearably compelling and provocative. I remember being occupied in particular by two intertwining impressions. One is that the peace museum and accompanying infrastructure seemed old and in need of some rethinking and regeneration; the second was that in focusing so specifically on an anti-nuclear message, rather than a broader one about war and other human travesties, the city seemed to limit its communicative power. Of course, these are deliberate strategies – Hiroshima’s specific experience is so vast and horrifying, it shouldn’t have to be about anything other than that (and might occasionally become a political football if it was), and it shouldn’t have to conform to modern concepts of slickness. If we can’t go there and engage directly with that experience for what it was, then what good are we? And yet, that’s the state of things. It remains among the most elusive of twentieth century tragedies – there’s no societal consensus for instance on whether dropping the bomb was a strategic necessity, the only way of forcing a Japanese surrender that might otherwise be years away, or a quasi-criminal display of force, designed primarily to assert American capacity and will as the post-war world took shape.
Legacy of Hiroshima
No doubt that’s partly because the history we know is primarily written by the winners, and yet it’s always seemed remarkable that Japan renewed itself so thoroughly after WW2, as if the psychic blast had been almost as compelling as the physical one. But maybe its capacity to move on was at the cost of embedding incoherences that would serve it poorly in the long run (leading for instance to its current demographic problems and extreme economic imbalances). If you take the country’s post-war cinema as a guide, you can certainly find evidence galore of malaise and embedded trauma (for instance in the work of Nagisa Oshima or Shohei Imamura). The works of the period’s best-known filmmakers though – Yasujro Ozu, Kenji Mizoguchi, Akira Kurosawa – rarely mention Hiroshima, although one might detect it pulsing in the subtext, adding to the tragedy for instance of some of the societally-imposed, emotionally self-destructive compromises in Ozu’s films.
How could one ever face Hiroshima head-on without causing all conventional narrative to dissolve? The question runs through Alain Resnais’ 1959 Hiroshima mon amour, an official classic of cinema. It entered my mind again recently because of the renewed attention on its star Emmanuelle Riva, with her Oscar nomination for this year’s Amour. In Hiroshima mon amour, her first film, she plays an actress, making a film on the subject of “peace,” who meets a Japanese architect (both are unnamed in the film) and goes to bed with him. She’s scheduled to leave the following day, but he follows her around, trying to persuade her to stay. She tells him that during the war she had an affair with a German soldier posted in her small French town, as a result of which she and her family were shamed. As the film ends, their fate is unresolved, and so is our relationship to them. They mesmerize us as they do each other, but there’s no reason this encounter should amount to anything: they’ve both acknowledged they’re happy with their spouses and their regular lives. And what does it matter anyway, when she’s so identified with the legacy of murderous European chaos, and he’s so identified with the recent tragedy of Japan?
Displaced love story
The film begins on a stunning evocation of their intertwined bodies, covered in what might be ash from a bomb blast, and for the first twenty minutes or so denies us any easy point of access to the story – it gives us glimpses of the lovers, but the majority of what we see is Hiroshima: the areas rebuilt and not, the museum, reenactments of the aftermath. On the soundtrack, they conduct what might be pillow talk, except that it consists of a vertiginously abstract conversation on what she did or didn’t see in and glean from Hiroshima. Resnais’ broad purpose is immediately clear – to expose the inadequacy of conventional expressions of sorrow or sympathy for the events and their victims, to demonstrate the limitations of cinematic conventions in representing its reality and legacy (all we see of the film on which the actress is working is a staged rally in which marchers parade a series of conventionally well-meaning, ineffectual slogans).
But the film is also a love story. On the one hand, it’s a very displaced one – no names, no shared past, no obvious history, no connection at all, especially when you learn that Japanese actor Eiji Okada didn’t speak French at all and learned all his lines phonetically (you’d never know it though). But at the same time, it carries a classic iconic fatalism, so that you might almost relax into it as you would into a film noir. Riva, of course, seems even more fascinating with our newly-obtained hindsight – not a great beauty necessarily (he even remarks on her ugliness at one point) and sometimes you might think somewhat over-emphatic in some of her expressions and line readings. It works though – despite the rejection of conventional realism, she conveys the sense of a human experience, with all the mild glitches, the ongoing rebalancing of perceptions and reactions.
I doubt too many viewers would feel the passion for Hiroshima mon amour that they do for their favourite films, but then this too seems necessary to its effect – passion would necessarily be rooted in a form of simplification. The film demands that we be at something of a remove, not knowing entirely how to react or what to feel, second-guessing and contradicting ourselves as the world continues to do in its engagement with war and death. It feels like a film of its time, but few films of 1959 dissolve so effectively the barrier between then and now. Especially as Riva just demonstrated so compellingly the folly of ever thinking any aspect of cinema history might be closed down.
And Resnais, now in his nineties, is still making boundary-pushing films – most recently just last year, although his focus has become less on representing history than on the ambiguities of human experience, and the boundaries between art and life. As for Hiroshima, well, how often would an average person ever hear it mentioned now? And if we were to fight that disregard, what exactly is the nature of the memory for which we’d be fighting? Even in Hiroshima mon amour, little more than a decade after the event, the lovers struggle to determine whether its backdrop to their love affair somehow elevates it, or rather renders it insignificant. The struggle is still enthralling, and noble, even if you can hardly imagine it being enacted now.