22 January 2015

Remembering the Bomb: Promotional Materials for 'Hachigatsu no Kyoushikyoku' and 'Blast from the Past'

As the actual events of Hiroshima and Nagasaki receded in time, each new generation grappled with the memory and reconciliation of the past. Hachigatsu no Kyoushikyoku (also known Hachigatsu no Rapusodi) was released under the title Rapsodia en Agosto in Spain in 1991 or 1992 (the film premiered in Japan and most countries in 1991). A series of lobby cards were distributed by the production company as advertisements to display in theatres that were showing the film. One card in particular emphasises a key theme of the film, which is the complex relationship between three generations of a Japanese family: grandmother Kane, who is a Nagasaki hibakusha, or bomb survivor, her children (who are now middle aged adults), and her grandchildren.

While Kane had direct experience of the bomb and is struggling with the memory of that time, including the death of her husband in the blast, her children seem detached from that legacy and are more concerned with their current lives and finances. This is suggested by the arrangement of the characters in the photo on the Spanish lobby card to the left. The grandchildren go through a sort of transition, at first following their parents (who are temporarily at the center of the family circle) seeing their grandmother as out of touch with their world, but then, after visiting the bomb sites in Nagasaki, come to understand Kane's world. Notice how the photo is framed (it's a still from the film). Kane is off to the left and bowing down, perhaps indicative of her being somehow outside the family and feeling dejected or ignored. The question of memory of the bomb, who remembers and who does not, is a powerful subtext in this film. Kurosawa directs the film as a sort of free flowing song, or a rhapsody, so although many scenes appear on a superficial level to be literal there is a lot of symbolism underlying this film, as suggesting by the above still.

The photo to the right shows Akira Kurosawa directing Japanese actor Hisashi Igawa and American actor Richard Gere in Hachigatsu no Kyoushikyoku (1991), while producer Mike Inoue looks on. In addition to Hachigatsu, Inoue produced Kurosawa's 1990 film Dreams, which also included references to the atomic bomb. This 'behind the scenes' promotional photo was provided by the film's US distributor Orion Classics to American theatres and news media outlets under the film's English title. Judging from the chain link fence in the background, this photo was probably taken during the scene at the schoolyard when the family comes together as a group of hibakusha tend to the memorial. Although Hachigatsu was in colour, promotional photos were often provided in black and white, possibly because newspapers of the day that might use the photo were usually printed in black and white. The photo capitalises on the name and fame of the director and American actor.

In the French promotional photo seen at the left, Grandma Kane is grieving while holding a photo of her recently deceased brother in a scene that presages her ultimate breakdown. Note the vivid almost blood-red lighting in the background, which although an unnatural colour in nature was very effective for heightening the emotional impact of this scene toward the end of the film. This photo was provided by the film's French distribution company announcing Hachigatsu no Kyoushikyoku under its French title Rhapsodie en Aout as an official selection for the 1991 Cannes film festival. Kurosawa's first atomic bomb film, Ikimono no Kiroku, was also screened at the Cannes festival 36 years earlier, an indication of the Japanese director's ongoing attempts to reach international audiences with his films.

Turning to the American film Blast from the Past, at the right is the cover of the Japanese distributor's promotional pamphlet. Notice the 'hula hoops'--a retro 1960s toy--arranged to resemble the symbol for nuclear power, here hijacked as the 'power of love,' or at least infatuation. The film was released in Japan under the title Time Travel: The Lover Who Came From Yesterday. The theme of 'time travel' is emphasised throughout the pamphlet, including a timeline of other time travel films. However, the advertising campaign is somewhat misleading as there is no actual time travel in the film, at least not in the conventional sci-fi sense of traveling through time as in films like Back to the Future or The Terminator. However, if you stretch the idea there is a sort of time travel theme, if not physical time travel then at least through the film's focus on early 1960s values emerging in the world of the 1990s. The film's hero, Adam, grew up in a bomb shelter after his overly cautious father locked the family in for over thirty years when he thought a nuclear war with the USSR had begun. Having a bomb shelter in one's back yard, for those who could afford it, was an aspect of 1950s and 1960s American suburban life, and buried at the back of the pamphlet is a brief mention of this. But clearly the emphasis is on the 'lover from yesterday.' As little Adam grew into a young man, he was tutored by his parents in the bomb shelter. When he emerges to find a girl, who turns out to be Eve, he at first thinks he is in a post-nuclear world but soon realises what has happened. His new friends are at first confused but then impressed by his innocence, manners and politeness, which have all but disappeared among the 30-somethings of the day. So, in that sense, there was a metaphorical time travel as the cultural values of the early 1960s 'travelled' into the 1990s. While the film is launched with the assumption of a nuclear holocaust, most of it is actually a fairly typical boy meets girl rom-com type film, which were it not for the bomb shelter gimmick would be pretty mundane. Despite the goofy love story, the film has something to say about remembering the past and the repercussions in the present. Blast from the Past seems to be suggesting that the bomb--albeit very indirectly this time--can bring back those good old 'nuclear' family values.

[This essay, by J. Progler, is part of a series of essays on American and Japanese A-bomb film promotional materials. The other parts are here, here, and here.]

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