Recreating a bit of what was lost

Screen Shot 2015-02-06 at 12.00.08 PMThe quiet, solemn beauty of the Peace Memorial Park strikes visitors to Hiroshima. Masaaki Tanabe has used his filmmaking skills to try to give people a sense of what is gone from the Peace Park and the rebuilt areas nearby, what was lost when the world’s first atomic bomb attack destroyed the once-lively neighborhood where he grew up.

He made up his mind at age 15 that he wanted to be a film producer, but as his career went along, he deliberately stayed away from the subject of the Hiroshima bombing. For a long time, he wouldn’t even go to the Atomic Bomb Dome – the partially ruined building just across the river from the Peace Park that was just steps from where his family’s home once stood, He recalled hot summer days playing in a park by the Dome as it’s called (for the copper skeleton of the beautiful dome that once topped the Prefectural Industrial Promotion Hall).

Tanabe recalled growing up in a samurai-era house, a building that was one of many that had been in his family when they served as lords of the area in previous generations. He was 7 years old when the bomb struck, and he had been evacuated to the countryside home of his grandparents about 25 miles away. “Two days after the atomic bombing, I entered the city and I stayed for three days,” he told me in a 2009 interview. “And I remember very every minute.” Then he added, “However, I cannot talk about it because it was so terrible.”

Before the bombing, August 6 was just another morning. “That is what I wanted to convey,” he said, when he finally began turning to the subject of Hiroshima.

He talked about avoiding the area in an interview with The Guardian in 2005, as the 60th anniversary of the bombing approached. But by then he was turning back to the subject. And perhaps he had been preparing for most of his life to undertake what has become his incredible effort to use film, animation and computer capabilities to give people a sense of life before the bombing. He graduated from the well-known College of Art of Nihon University in Tokyo. He worked in photojournalism, with Hiroshima’s daily paper, often shooting films for newsreel-style reports, before he established a video center, called Knack, in 1975.

He had grown up in the neighborhood directly under where the atomic was dropped. He was saved because he, like many grade school children, had been evacuated to the countryside

“I think it is my mission because I was born and brought up at the hypocenter,” he said. “I lost my family. I lost my life.”

He had gained, as he said, both the film-making skills to do computer animations – of striking realism — of old Hiroshima and the journalistic skills to do the research to guarantee authenticity. And what research he did. In making his first film about Hiroshima, he interviewed 165 people, and he had reached more than 300 when I talked to him. As he worked on a project, he returned with his creations, drawing groups of people together to hear what was right and what needed to be changed.

The results are stunning. On the United Nations web site, you can see both an English-language film with computer-graphic recreations of the streets, buildings and neighborhood (and a longer Japanese version) of a computer-animated film about Hiroshima that he presented to a conference for the review of Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty (the image above is a screen shot from one of the film’s computer-generated recreations). He artfully blends the computer recreations with old photos, films, maps and interviews with people who had lived in the neighborhood. Occasionally, he puts the interview subjects right in the computer versions of their family stores or, in one case, the Buddhist temple that the priest’s family had for generations.

The name of the film tells a lot about what Tanabe is conveying: “An Unrecognized Loss.” And there are layers to the meaning. On one level, he is talking about how much of the central part of the city was never rebuilt: Much of the area is now part of the Peace Park. As quiet and as beautiful as it can be, it doesn’t replace the lively neighborhoods that he and other remember.

The concrete walls along the riverfronts fit the park and the sleek downtown that has grown up nearby, but they have also helped – along with many other factors – to cut the river off from daily life. The relationship of people and the river was central to traditional local culture, Tanabe said.

“No one swims in the river today,” he told me. As a young child, “I swam in the river everyday.” One time after the atomic bombing, however, he jumped in the river and saw a scalp. After that, he never went back.

“What was lost by the atomic bombing is really big. The real history of Hiroshima, the culture with the tradition, were all lost. The good old days of Hiroshima were all lost. To be specific, several hundred thousand people’s live were all lost. Their everyday life was lost.”

For Tanabe, what he can do best is to use his interviews of surviving neighbors, writings and animations in the cause of reclaiming some of the lost culture, lifestyle and religion. He says he is inclined toward religion himself and was helped through his difficult youth and loss by the presence of two religious paintings from the temple next door, which had been taken to the countryside. There is about Tanabe’s work a marvelous sense of both Hiroshima’s pain and the determination to make a better world out of it.

Particularly in the Japanese version of the film he presented to the United Nations, the survivors’ tears flow freely. They are telling their stories to someone who understands at every level their losses and their hopes. He never loses sight of either.

After looking back over our interview notes recently, I was struck more than ever his interest in not just in documenting the losses but also providing consolation. He had talked about his own avoidance of the massive Aug. 6 ceremony in the Peace Park, saying that most hibakusha prefer to take part in smaller remembrances and spend the day quietly. He was particularly pointed about one centerpiece of the Peace Park, the Peace Museum, dismissing a reconstruction of Hiroshima as “matchbook-size” and detailing how the entire presentation seems simply too focused on the tragic. “In the museum, there is nothing to comfort us.”

But he searches out what is good. In “An Unrecognized Loss,” he makes note of some of the most famous Peace Park monuments, including a memorial to Sadako Sasaki, the girl whose death of leukemia was recounted in “Sadako and the Thousand Paper Cranes. The camera then lingers on a statue of Kannon, the goddess of mercy. The announcer says, “The Peace Kannon keeps vigil over the souls of people whose lives were sacrificed in Nakajima district, the heart of Hiroshima.”

In telling about the losses, he also manages to provide not just hope but some consolation.

Part of a series honoring the survivors of the atomic bombings. (The earlier stories are here, here, herehere, here and here.)

Research for this and other articles on this site was done with a Fulbright grant. Joe Copeland can be reached at

Copyright 2015, Joe Copeland

1 comment for “Recreating a bit of what was lost

  1. joannbyrd
    February 14, 2015 at 1:41 pm

    Thanks, Joe.
    The profiles of people affected by the bombing of Hiroshima tell us so much about that event–and about the human race. Knowing about film-maker Masaaki Tanabe tells us even more, because we can explore his work and his focus on his city before the atomic bomb was dropped. Most of us know very little of the significant context of Hiroshima before the worst Aug. 6 in history.
    It is important work you do.

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