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Hiroshima No Pika
Hellfire: A Journey from Hiroshima

Hiroshima No Pika & Hellfire: A Journey from Hiroshima
First Run Features
2005 & 1986 / Color / 1:37 flat full frame / 25 + 58 min. / Street Date July 19, 2005 / 29.95
Starring Toshi and Iri Maruki
Produced by Tetsujiro Yamagami / John W. Dower
Directed by Noriaki Tsuchimoto / John Junkerman

Reviewed by Glenn Erickson

First Run Features has packaged two films about an intriguing husband and wife artist team, who made a career painting artwork and murals about the Hiroshima bombing, and later, other man-made humanitarian crimes. The lead-off is a new video version of Toshio Maruki's popular pacifist children's book, Hiroshima No Pika, reportedly the most widely published Japanese book on the international market. The second and more substantial film is a twenty year-old documentary about the lives of the Marukis and the commitment to humanist themes in their work.

Hiroshima No Pika is probably a poor substitute for the book itself, as it merely functions as a Reading Room- style recitation of the English language version, while the book's illustrations are minimally 'animated' through camera moves. Activist Susan Sarandon does the reading and a music score helps with the mood. In a couple of spots the story stops for a bar or two of a sad Japanese song to come through, an effective touch.

The story of Hiroshima No Pika is a simple account of the August 6, 1945 bombing as witnessed by a young girl. She and her valiant mother are initially unharmed, but mother must pull her injured husband out of a fire. The trio spends days searching for aid amid the rubble of the city and thousands of corpses and horribly maimed bombing victims. It is three days before the mother realizes that the little girl is still clutching the chopsticks she was eating breakfast with when the bomb fell.

The story is unequivocal about who is at fault, pointing out the 'happy' name of the airplane that wiped out so many people and ending with the stern admonition that, "If people don't drop the bomb, it won't go off."

Hiroshima No Pika's obvious use is to convince children that there's nothing worse than nuclear war, and nothing better than peace. Out of context with the reasons the bomb was dropped, the film and book might seem to be no more than an honest pacifist opinion. The real background is provided in the older documentary included on the disc, Hellfire: A Journey from Hiroshima. In the 1980s, American documentarian John Junkerman covered the Marukis, then both deep into old age, as they worked on a mural entitled Hell. It is the culmination of their artistic investigations of man's self destructive century, an evil that went beyond the bombings.

Anyone interested in art, murals or the artistic life will find the docu absorbing. The Marukis (who have both passed away in the last ten years) were unpopular pacifists denied public support during the war. He was trained in an older tradition of ink painting and she in oils, so they described their work together as trying to 'mix oil and water.' Yet they remained together and active since their marriage in 1941.

Their popular work consists of large murals, mostly of images of tortured, twisted, burned and traumatized people. Their first collection of murals on Hiroshima toured the world in the 1950s, everywhere but the United States, where it was considered propaganda. First painted during the occupation, the Hiroshima murals had to be entitled "August 6" because the MacArthur laws forces forbade any mention of the Atomic bombings. 1

The Marukis personally witnessed the aftermath of Hiroshima. They left for the city three days after the bombing and aided victims there for a little less than a month. Iri recounts that when he saw the masses of rotting corpses and rivers filled with floating bodies, he thought "I'm not supposed to see this." When he came down with symptoms of radiation poisoning, they returned to Tokyo.

The paintings and murals were activist works in that the Marukis wished to continue to educate people about the bombings, which were not taught in classrooms and by the economically booming 1950s were already fading from the public consciousness.  2 The Marukis built a private gallery at their country cottage outside of Tokyo which has drawn hundreds of thousands of visitors, mainly schoolchildren, even though it was not officially recognized by authorities.

In the docu we see the pair at work, painting on paper on the floor with brushes at the end of long sticks. It's pretty amazing to see Toshi render a compelling human form with just a few long strokes of her brush. Art students will enjoy a sequence in which she describes her artistic struggle with her husband: He thinks her finished drawings are too bold and simple, and washes them with gray watercolors. She responds by inking over details she thinks are lost, and he retaliates with the washes again. The result are sharp ink drawings enveloped in dark clouds of gray.

In their mural of hell, the artists make room for Hitler, the Japanese Emperor and even President Truman. Toshi makes a speech to reporters that as far as she is concerned, the world leaders are all criminals. This would seem a narrow viewpoint until we learn more about the rest of the Marukis' work. One mural indicts the criminal businessmen who dumped tons of mercury into a Japanese river, poisoning many and spreading the curse of widespread brain damage over unborn children wherever the pollutant touched. Her anger leaps off the paper like an accusation.

When she accompanied the Hiroshima Murals to America in the early 1970s, Toshi was taken aback when a UC professor asked her why her anger was directed solely at America. Hadn't she ever heard of the Rape of Nanking? She responded with a mural showing eyeless, 'devil' Japanese soldiers (her brother could have been one of them) massacring hundreds of thousands of Chinese in an orgy of murder. As Japanese militarists and nationalists sometimes float the idea that the Rape of Nanking was a myth, the Marukis' war-atrocity mural makes a strong statement that it did indeed happen.

We see the genesis of the book Hiroshima No Pika as well. Realizing that modern Japanese school textbooks were omitting depictions of the bombings as 'too disturbing,' she wrote and illustrated the book to educate children. At first she tried to make the pictures more gentle but opted for a stronger style so as to not "lie to children." (The images are still less terrifying than images in the Hiroshima murals.)

With the Marukis now gone and the events of WW2 now two and three generations past, we see many disturbing developments. Japan is considering dropping the 'no war, no offensive military capability' clause from their MacArthur-mandated constitution. President Bush has "reserved the option" to use nuclear weapons as the USA should see fit to further its interests, and has been answered with re-election instead of impeachment. It is not reassuring to see the lessons of history discarded and ignored so blithely. The idealism of influential pacifists like the Marukis, actual witnesses to nuclear destruction, needs to be preserved.

First Run Features' DVD of Hiroshima No Pika & Hellfire: A Journey from Hiroshima presents both films in good transfers. Hiroshima No Pika appears to be a video production. Hellfire: A Journey from Hiroshima is 16mm and comes off nicely; the same illustrations from the video show are softer but probably more accurate for color and tone.

A short gallery of art is included along with text bios for the activist-artists. Another 'extra' is billed as a "Susan Sarandon Suggests" Activism Page. Alas, all that will be found there are web addresses for responsible anti-nuke and pacifist web pages.

On a scale of Excellent, Good, Fair, and Poor, Hiroshima No Pika & Hellfire: A Journey from Hiroshima rates:
Movie: Very Good
Video: Good
Sound: Very Good
Supplements: Gallery of Marukis' art, Artist and Filmmaker Biographies
Packaging: Keep case
Reviewed: July 10, 2005


1. This also accounts for the lack of a specific mention of Hiroshima or Nagasaki in Godzilla, made one year before the end of the MacArthur occupation.

2. Shohei Imamura's film Black Rain tells the story of Hiroshima survivors who became virtual invisible people, socially shunned (a groom's family backs out of a marriage to a girl because she is a "shameful" bombing survivor) and ignored by the bureaucracy. As with many social-cultural disasters, the 'victims' became the 'monsters.'

DVD Savant Text © Copyright 2007 Glenn Erickson

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