“Hiroshima, Mon Amour” opened in the United States in May 1960. I was nine years old and had been going to the movies obsessively for two years, but Brigitte Bardot was the whole of my awareness of French movies. The first Alain Resnais picture I saw was “La Guerre est Finie,” seven years later. It was a political movie set during Franco’s dictatorship in Spain, which I knew nothing about, that was hot with sexual innuendo, which was something always on my mind. Although I could not follow the story, I was fascinated by the characters and atmosphere. His next picture, “Je t’aime, Je t’aime,” about a man undergoing a time travel experiment in which he, like the protagonist of “Slaughterhouse Five,” became unstuck in time, was being tossed randomly from one minute-long memory excerpt to another. It was interesting, but frustrating, and didn’t add up to much. The movie that sold me on Resnais was “Last Year at Marienbad,” which I saw in the early seventies at the University of Washington. It had a narrative so thick that it was like watching a movie and reading a book at the same time. What I remember more than the movie itself was the audience. They were just like the characters in the movie, walking out of the movie as if hypnotized and commanded to leave. The vertical movement of the walk-outs up the aisle and out the back exits matched the horizontal movement of the somnambulistic characters on the screen. I went to see “Last Year at Marienbad” every chance I got, and it remains to this day one of my favorite movies. But I never did get around to seeing Resnais’ first feature, “Hiroshima, Mon Amour.” It was televised on public TV several times, but the subtitles were unreadable, and the love story between the French woman and the Japanese man didn’t interest me. I never got past the first fifteen minutes.
Recently, I started to wonder what it might have been like to be an adult in the sixties, to have seen these movies for the first time, not as a teenager, but as a grown-up person. Then I realized that since I had never seen “Hiroshima, Mon Amour,” it would be possible for me to simulate such an experience. Of course, an adult in 1960 was a different creature than an adult in 2015. Still, since I had no memory of seeing the film before, my impressions of it would not be filtered through a previous memory. Unlike “Marienbad,” which I can never watch without recalling those University students fleeing the screening hall in slow motion, I could see “Hiroshima” through my present eyes, and my present eyes only.
The first thing I see is a tourist insisting that she knows Hiroshima, and a native insisting that she knows nothing about the city or its devastation during the second world war. The contrast between atrocity footage and museum exhibits supports his position. It is impossible to know anything unless you know it first hand. I was reminded of two events in recent US History, the 1999 police riots in Seattle during the WTO summit, and the 9/11 attack on New York City. The nation was traumatized by the latter, but only those people in New York experienced it directly. For the rest of us, it was something we watched on television. The effect was, indeed, traumatic, but the event was experienced through a series of media images. Each New Yorker saw something different. A diabetic jazz musician watched it from his window on Spring Street, while office workers in the immediate vicinity of the twin towers ran down smoke-choked streets as the tallest building in the city fell. The rest of us were glued to our television as the situation worsened and for the rest of the day watched the skies in fear of more attacks The whole country was paralyzed, but it recovered. The New Yorker did not.
People who were not in downtown Seattle during the WTO week of martial law only knew of what was happening through carefully selected images that had little to do with the actual events. Rows of police in Star Wars costumes prevented people from getting to their jobs. College students leaving their classes were attacked, tear-gassed, and beaten by police. A black journalist from the local daily was pulled from his car and beaten. Store managers were ordered to close their businesses. Et cetera. I was working in the downtown Borders and went back and forth between the television in the employee room and the streets outside. What appeared on the television had little to do with what was happening outside, yet those few television images were all most of the city ever knew or saw of the events. Unless you were in the streets during the police riots, you knew nothing about the Battle in Seattle.
The second thing I saw was the delineation between city and nation. Can the cities heal the hatred between their nations through the love for each other. or are the cities of enemy nations guilty of treason if they do not also hate each other? French girls have been notorious for their sexual liaisons with the enemy. The actress Arletty, star of the immortal masterpiece “Children of Paradise,” received an 18-month sentence for treason as punishment for her relationship with a German officer during the French occupation. The fictional Elle (Emmanuella Riva) of Resnais’ film was also punished for her affair with a German soldier in the French town of Nevers. Now, in the the present, she is having an affair with Lui (Eiji Okada) while shooting a film about peace in Hiroshima. By the end of the film, Elle has taken on the name of her city as her own, as has Lui. Elle is finally Nevers, and Lui is Hiroshima. They are the friendly cities of enemy countries. As she will always be haunted by Nevers, and he by Hiroshima. Neither can live in the present, and it is unlikely they will meet again in the future.
The third thing I got out of watching “Hiroshima, Mon Amour” is that Japan is the exception to the rule that the victors are always the ones to write the history books. Because of the use of atomic weapons against them, they have been privileged to portray themselves as victims, although they are the ones who started World War 2, when they invaded Manchuria in September 1931, a full ten years before the United States entered the war. In July 1937, they invaded China, initiated the war in the Pacific, four years before their sneak attack on Pearl Harbor. In 1940, the Axis was formed between Japan, Italy, and Germany with the signing of the Tripartite pact in Berlin.
During World War Two, the Germans killed six million Jews and twenty million Russians. The Japanese slaughtered thirty million. twenty-three million of whom were Chinese. The death rate for Allied prisoners of war in Japanese camps was 30%, compared with 4% in the German camps. Today, Americans feel guilt over the Japanese-Americans who were relocated to internment camps. But over 1500 American civilians were murdered in Japanese internment camps. Although it was no picnic for the 120,000 Japanese-Americans relocated to internment camps in the wake of Pearl Harbor, the Americans did not abuse or murder them. And even after reparations were made, the internment camps are still a black mark in American history, but we hear no mention of the murdered American civilians in the Japanese camps. Truly, the loser has rewritten history. The Japanese were waging war against all humanity, even forcing their own soldiers to suicide rather than be allowed to return home in the shame of defeat. Yet it is the Americans who bear the historical shame of using inhumane weapons against them in order to put a final end to their atrocities. True, the death toll was 200,000 in the bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, and it is alarming to see how each successive American president has raised the estimate of how many lives were saved by using atomic weapons to end the war. What is not debatable is that between 100,000-200,000 Chinese civilians were murdered every month between July 1937 – August 1945 by the Imperial Japanese Army, and that figure would not have been diminished had the war continued beyond August 1945.
I am not trying to justify the use of atomic weapons against Japan. I only wish to bring attention to the falsity of Japan’s portrait of itself as a victim of the war they started, a war against all humanity that would have ended in world domination by a country that has outflanked all others in its atrocities against those who stood against them. And as I watch “Hiroshima, Mon Amour,” I remember a scene in Ozu’s “An Autumn Afternoon” in which a group of drunk Japanese men wonder among themselves how life would be different had they won the war. “We would be in New York now,” one of the men answers.
What bothers me here is not so much Japan playing the innocent lamb, but the United States downplaying its war against Japan in favor of exaggerating their role in the defeat of Germany. In 1933, the first concentration camp was established in Dachau, and Goering formed the Gestapo. In 1934, Hitler became chancellor and president of Germany. In 1936, Hitler and Mussolini formed a military alliance, and Germany and Japan signed an anti-Comintern pact, which Italy joins in 1937. On August 12, 1938, Hitler orders the mobilization of the German Army. On March 15, 1938, Germany invades Poland. On April 8, 1940, Germany invades Denmark and Norway. This is followed by the surrender of Belgium and the Netherlands, and the entrance of the German Army into Paris. Then the blitz over England begins with an all night bombing raid over London. On April 17, 1941, Yugoslavia surrenders to Germany, and in August, the German army advances against Russia. This all happened before the US declared war on Japan, after which the US joined the allied forces. However, it was not until July 1943, after a few skirmishes in North Africa and and an all night bombing raid on Germany in conjunction with the RAF, that the US joined the fight against the Nazis and Fascists in Italy. This was followed by Operation Overlord, which started June 6, 1944 in Normandy, France and continued for three months. Then the Siegfried Campaign from September 1944 to February 1945 through France, followed by the allied invasion of Germany in March 1945, topped off with three weeks of mopping up what remained of the Germans in Northern Italy. So really, when compared to the British and the Russian war effort against Germany, the US contribution was secondary. Their primary business was the war against Japan in the Pacific.
Had I been a 63 year-old man watching “Hiroshima , Mon Amour” at Seattle’s Ridgemont Theater in 1960. I doubt these would have been my thoughts on the movie. But they are some of the thoughts that occurred to me while watching the bluray on a 40″ screen in Lima, Peru on this hot summer day in 2015. Take it for what it’s worth, if anything.