Peace Lessons

Melodramatic, Visceral and Moral Strategies in the Postwar Japanese Antiwar Film

Bianca Briciu, Carleton University [About | Email]

Volume 13, Issue 4 (Article 22 in 2013). First published in ejcjs on 15 December 2013.

Suggested citation: Bianca Briciu, "Peace Lessons: Melodramatic, Visceral and Moral Strategies in the Postwar Japanese Antiwar Film." electronic journal of contemporary japanese studies volume 13 issue 4 (15 December 2013). Available at


This article analyses the role of peace education in 1950s Japanese films, situating them within the debates surrounding peace discourses in postwar Japan. I will explore the role of peace education in two types of Japanese antiwar films: atomic bomb films: Genbaku no ko (Children of Hiroshima, Shindo Kaneto, 1952), Hiroshima (Hiroshima, Sekigawa Hideo, 1953); and films representing the front line experiences in WWII: Ningen no jōken (The Human Condition, Kobayashi Masaki, 1959-1963). Discussing the different cinematic means of conveying the message of peace, I will argue that Children of Hiroshima relies on a melodramatic discourse of healing and forgetfulness; Hiroshima creates a visceral type of education that inscribes the trauma of war on spectators’ bodies; whereas The Human Condition constructs a moral education based on a humanist critique of the subjection of individuals to institutional forms of power. The purpose of this paper is to show how the cinematic language of each film contributes in a specific way to peace education.

Keywords: Peace education, Hiroshima, cinema studies, The Human Condition.


Depending on the values and beliefs of the times when they are made, the messages of films representing war experiences range from nationalistic propaganda to strong antiwar feelings that go beyond the boundaries of national identities. Many postwar Japanese films portraying WWII exposed the pain, suffering and horror of war with a strong “thou shall not wage war again” indictment. They echoed Japan’s transformation from an aggressive empire into a nation that renounced the right to wage war under the new constitution and the landmark for world peace due to the peace activism after Hiroshima and Nagasaki (Yoneyama, 1999). The majority of scholars studying antiwar films in Japan have criticised their focus on national suffering as a failure to come to terms with Japan’s war responsibility (Sato, 1998; Standish, 2005; Tanaka, 2009; Orr, 2001). This article responds to these critiques through a close analysis of cinematic representation that tackles the dichotomy between nationalism and universalism as two ineffective ways of incorporating Japan’s role in WWII. This dichotomy haunts peace discourses in Japan, split between national victimisation and a naïve universalism that erases historical specificities. While these critiques are valid, I hope to complicate the dichotomy through a close analysis of what each film has to offer in terms of peace education.

Is any description of national wartime suffering a sign of amnesia about Japan’s atrocities during the wartime period? Is peace a universal concept or is it tied to national identities? I will analyse in this paper the strategies of peace education in two atomic bomb films, Genbaku no ko (Children of Hiroshima, Shindo Kaneto, 1952), Hiroshima (Hiroshima, Sekigawa Hideo, 1953) and films representing the front line experiences in WWII: Ningen no jōken (The Human Condition, Kobayashi Masaki, 1959-1963). I will argue that while these three films are anchored in national identities, they strive to achieve a certain universalism by redefining not only what it meant to be a Japanese in WWII but also what it means to be human. I chose these films because I believe that they have an important role in peace education as a form of learning from the past.

On the Criterion Collection of The Battle of Algiers, Gillo Pontecorvo’s 1966 film, Oliver Stone and other famous directors praised the film for presenting the sacrifices on both the French and the Algerian side. They argue that human suffering has no national boundaries, an idea that stayed with me as a persistent question. Do films that critique war educate their audiences against war in general or do they perpetuate national divisions and conflicts by creating a discourse in which the identity of historical actors matters more than their peace message? The justified critiques against Japanese antiwar films tend to brush them aside for their failure to incorporate Japan’s atrocities during WWII. This gesture of brushing them aside also erases these films’ efforts to offer peace lessons for future generations. I will offer in this paper a nuanced reading of cinematic strategies forming a peace discourse in the 1950s-1960s in Japan, while being aware of the critiques brought against the films. I will argue that Children of Hiroshima relies on a discourse of healing and forgetfulness; Hiroshima creates a visceral type of peace education through vicarious traumatic inscription of bodily pain on the bodies of spectators; whereas The Human Condition creates a discourse of moral education through the critique of power institutions that lead to war and consequently to human pain and misery. All three films strive to reach a universal dimension of humanity while being strongly anchored in the representation of national suffering. Atomic bomb films define a universal humanity as bodily vulnerability to extreme suffering, while The Human Condition defines it as a universal core that we all share but we forget because of our subjection to national institutions of power.

Peace Education and Lessons from the Past

Many authors have pointed out that peace does not mean only the absence of war. For Ian M. Harris and Mary Lee Morrison peace education is a moral education. “Peace education confronts the forms of violence that dominate society by teaching about its causes and providing knowledge of alternatives” (2003:9). Peace education in its version of pacifism “transforms individual behavior and beliefs” and “withdraws allegiance to violent institutions” (Harris and Morris, 2003: 20). We can see in this definition that peace is both an individual transformation and an awareness of social institutions that promote conflict. Peace education is an attempt to integrate the past as a lesson for the future, a phenomenon present in the majority of antiwar films made in Japan in the 1950s. However, this definition also problematises the theoretical controversies surrounding Japanese antiwar films as descriptions of a national victimisation that precludes the integration of Japan’s own aggression during the wartime. I argue that the double aspect of antiwar films as recreating historical memory and as inscribing lessons for the future informs many of the debates around their pacifist value and potential.

Peace education needs to transcend the aversion to the violence of war by creating knowledge about the ways in which national and transnational conditions lead to conflict and the ways individuals are assimilated into war. Since peace is future oriented and the memories are past oriented, a viable peace orientation implies Japan’s coming to terms with the past, a belated phenomenon Lisa Yoneyama (1999) observes as happening only during the last decades. However, during the 1950s and 1960s many Japanese citizens were involved in various peace movements and discourses, among which I would include these two categories of Japanese antiwar films that represent the horrors and human misery of war.

The purpose of this essay is to show how the films bridge the gap between wartime and postwar Japan through the recreation of past memories as lessons for peace. The recreation of memories always serves specific purposes related to the concerns of the present. Both the atomic bomb films and the films representing Japan’s involvement in WWII were specifically aimed at teaching future generations about the horrors of war but their strategies and implications are different. In the following part I will offer a brief historical view of the role played by cinematic representation in the postwar peace discourse.

Film and Peace Activism in Japan’s Postwar Context

The radical change from the wartime military ideology to postwar Japan as a symbol of peace was only possible through a reflexive coming to terms with the past that dominated cultural production between 1945 and 1960s. Isolde Standish refers to the generation of filmmakers active in this period as “humanists” because their films portrayed serious interrogation of what it meant to be human and what it meant to be Japanese (2005). Despite this self-interrogation and preoccupation with issues of memory in artistic discourse, scholars talking about this period criticise the failure of an effective coming to terms with Japan’s atrocities against other Asian nations—an argument which requires not refutation, but a more nuanced reading of the tensions between nationalism and universalism in the 1950s antiwar films.

Japan’s hope for peace in the postwar years was soon challenged by the Treaty of Mutual Cooperation and Security between the United States and Japan in 1960, when Japan became U.S.’s ally in the cold war. In her book on the war memory in Japan, Franziska Seraphim argues that in the 1950s and 60s in Japan, “the proximity of war both in time (WWII) and in space (Korea) spurred an immensely visible peace movement which proclaimed the relation between these two wars in humanitarian and political terms” (Seraphim, 2006: 19). Sato Tadao too argues that the imminence of another war was the impetus behind many serious pacifist films during this period (1998: 60). In 1953, Imai Masashi made the commercially successful Himeyuri no tō (The Tower of Lilies), and Kinoshita Keisuke made Nijushi no hitomi (Twenty-four Eyes) in 1955. Both films described the suffering of the Japanese people during the war; they were criticised for their melodramatic portrayal of the wartime period. The description of Japanese suffering and victimisation created an obsessive focus with national mourning and precluded awareness of the suffering inflicted by Japan on other nations. Even the serious intellectual reconsideration of war seen in the publication of Sho Showa-shi (A History of Showa), coauthored by Toyama Shigeki, Imai Seiichi and Fujiwara Akira, or Gendai seiji no shisō to kōzoō (The Thought and Structure of Modern [Japanese] Politics), by political scientist Maruyama Masao, failed adequately to address issues of war responsibility and the Japanese atrocities in Asia (Tanaka, 2009). As Tanaka Yuki observes, “all these works were heavily inward-looking rather than outward-looking” (2009). The majority of films portraying the experiences of WWII focused on the suffering of the Japanese people in the final stages and the loss of WWII. The representation of the atomic bombing was particularly problematic because of the relationship between Japan and the U.S.

During the Occupation period (1945-1952), SCAP (The Supreme Commander of Allied Powers) censorship forbade any representation of atomic bomb effects. “Filmmakers were only permitted to show the bomb contextualised as a strategic instrument which was the only way to end the war. The visual effect of the bomb was to be avoided, as was any depiction of civilian victims” (Broderick, 1999). This censorship explains why the representation of Hiroshima in film emerged in 1952 with Shindo Kaneto’s Genbaku no ko (Children of the Atom Bomb). A nationwide movement against the atomic bomb emerged in 1954 when a Japanese boat was exposed to radioactive fallout at Bikini Atoll. The movement was initiated by housewives in Tokyo as a campaign to ban the A- and H-bombs; it expanded into the first World Conference against the A- and H-bombs (Yoneyama, 1999: 14).

It is important to note that there were mothers and teachers who started the peace movement, which shows a concern with using the war experience as a national and universal lesson in peace for future generations. The atomic bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki single out Japan as the only nation which has experienced the effects of atomic bombing; its unique suffering positioned Japan as a hallmark for universal peace. The discourse against the atomic bomb defined peace as the universal abandonment of nuclear weapons. The representations of memory in atomic bomb films rely on this singularity of national suffering, but they also aim to offer a universal lesson against nuclear weapons.

We can see that the period 1945-1960 was marked by a strong preoccupation with memory, national victimisation, and peace that dominated artistic and intellectual discourse. In a similar way to individuals experiencing a traumatic event, the national experience of the trauma of suffering in the war created an inward-looking form of mourning balanced out by a genuine desire to use the experience of trauma for future peace both for Japan and for the world. In the following part I will analyse the role of the cinematic medium in the representation of past memories.

Cinema as Embodied, Affective History

Films have an important role in the construction of national memories through the embodied, affective representation of historical events. As Tessa Morris-Suzuki has suggested, “the world on the screen brings together things that, for analysis, or structural purposes, written history often has to split apart” (Morris-Suzuki: 2005: 141). The medium of cinema emotionalises, personalises and dramatises history revealing its impact on individual lives. However, this recreation of past events is not without importance in terms of education as a form of learning from the past to make a better future. The lessons of the past also depend on the strategies of representations that would effectively touch spectators. Scholars such as Elaine Scarry (2003) and Susan Sontag (2003) have pointed out the difficulty encountered by scholars and artists alike to create a discourse out of the pain, injury and death implicit in the traumatic experiences of war. The enormous toll of pain and suffering on the human body stops representation in its tracks, revealing the profound gap between the ultimate reality of suffering and its transformation into a discourse. The moral purpose of writers and filmmakers that want to educate through the lessons of history, is to engage spectators at a deep, affective level and ultimately to transform them.

In order to explore the strategies used by the above-mentioned three films to promote peace education, I will turn to E. Ann Kaplan’s four categories of cinematic viewing of films that reconstruct traumatic historical events. First is the position of being “vicariously traumatized—running away or wanting to know more.” (2005:10) Second, and the most ethically problematic, is the position of the voyeur, where the suffering of others is consumed for visual pleasure. Third is that of “comforting cure, an attempt to heal and forget” (Kaplan, 2005:10). She defines the position of witness, the fourth in her category, as the “most politically viable, keeping cognitive distance and awareness denied to the victim by the traumatic process” (Kaplan, 2005:10). The two atomic bomb films construct a peace message that highlights the suffering brought on by nuclear bombing. However, as theorists of peace education pointed out above, aversion to war does not mean an effective form of peace education, since it precludes a more politicised understanding of the role played by nationalism in the waging of war.

The Human Condition, on the other hand, constructs a position of witness by interrogating the ways in which individual subjectivity is constructed by institutional forms of power that promote violence and finally war. Kobayashi’s film addresses an important issue pointed out by Kaplan. “The crucial question… is whether a culture is able to understand trauma as an episode in the longer chain of structural mutations in modern systems that have accumulated a record of violence, suffering and misery” (Kaplan, 2005: 12).

For Joana Bourke, ideologies that promote war carefully wrap the bodily suffering and pain inflicted on human bodies into spiritual, aestheticised discourses that see war as a glorious enterprise (Bourke: 1996). On the contrary, films that critique war rely for their central message on the pain and suffering of bodies, either of soldiers/participants or of civilians. The evil of war is equated with immediate bodily pain, deprivation and suffering. Is the representation of the body’s pain a trope for what connects us all as human beings regardless of national boundaries—in other words a lesson in universal pacifism? Does it matter that the bodies are marked by Japanese, Chinese, Korean, American identities? Since antiwar films are both recreations of past experiences as national memories and universal lessons for the future, the national identity of the suffering bodies is of utmost importance. Although the vulnerability of the body to pain and suffering is a trait shared by humanity in general, bodies are connected to national identities. The main critique scholars have brought against representations of Japanese wartime suffering and the suffering of people in Hiroshima and Nagasaki is the focus on the suffering of Japanese bodies.

Atomic Bomb Films and Peace Education: Healing and Vicarious Trauma

Both atomic bomb films I consider here were commissioned and financially backed by the Japan Teachers’ Union, a relevant detail considering the educational hope invested in these films. They were supposed to teach not only Japanese people but the whole world about the horrors of nuclear holocaust. However, as Sato pointed out, “the lack of international recognition for Japanese films focusing on the atomic bombings demonstrate that many countries around the world, not only the United States, consider it improper for Japan to condemn the damaging impact of the atomic bomb” (Sato, 1998:63). This conundrum haunts Japan’s relation to WWII as an experience of suffering that lacks acknowledgement because of Japan’s infliction of suffering on other Asian nations. Sato pointed out that the peace education in Children of Hiroshima was not powerful enough to start an antinuclear movement.1

The bombing and its consequences, the pain and suffering of the victims, are described from the witnessing point of view of a Hiroshima-born teacher through flashbacks of events before and after the blast. The teacher travels back to Hiroshima where she adopts an orphan child and witnesses the scars and the suffering of survivors. The scene of the bombing is short, and the film dwells more on the legacy of suffering, fear and anguish of orphaned children and survivors. The scene of the bombing constructs a fast-paced montage of a ticking clock with images of daily life of Hiroshima’s children: playing, crawling, eating… interrupted by the iconic mushroom cloud that makes way for horrific images of scarred and burned bodies, including the famous scene also present in the Hiroshima Memorial Peace Museum of the darkened trace of a sitting person who was pulverised on the spot. This scene engages spectators to the traumatic event of bombing at an immediate, visceral level, but the film avoids a lengthy, vivid description of bodily pain, creating a discourse of what Donald Richie has referred to as “mono no aware,” an elegiac representation which creates pathos as a form of healing (Broderick, 1999). For this reason, the Japan Teachers’ Union perceived it as “a tear-jerker without political orientation” and commissioned Sekigawa Hideo to make a more politically engaged film about the bombing (Lowenstein, 2004: 146). The film’s melodramatic style creates a discourse of healing and forgetfulness that precludes an effective peace education.

Hiroshima, made by Sekigawa Hideo in 1953, reconstructed with fidelity the horror of the atomic bombing, being more successful in uniting the pervasive antiwar feelings of Japanese people. Similar to Children of Hiroshima, Hiroshima starts within the space of a school in a post-bombing time frame. The space of the school, the teacher as the main character, the radio voice talking about the history of the atom bomb attack and the discussion in the classroom about Hiroshima and its survivors are all self-reflexive references to education. The representation of memories connected to the atomic bombing activates strong affective responses, serving as a lesson for the future prevention of such human tragedy. Hiroshima constructs at a narrative level the discourse of education and the importance of the meanings future generations ascribe to the experience of the atomic bombing. Unlike Children of Hiroshima that dedicated less than five minutes of the film to the bombing experience, Sekigawa dedicates almost two quarters of the film to the representation of the horror of bombing effects. At the moment of the dropping of the bomb, the screen is dark, followed by a few white frames, all in silence. Paralleled by the soundtrack of requiem music, the camera moves in a slow pan over ruins and unimaginable human pain. The “horrific tapestry” of images recreates the traumatic deaths and the incredible bodily pain and anguish (Vroman, 2011). The film personalises some of the figures such as the teacher who leads a group of burned girls to the river, or the mother who witnesses in horror the death of her child. The apocalyptic images flood spectators with bodily affects of pain, horror and trauma. Despite the low-budget costuming and unrealistic effects, the knowledge that the event was real can produce a strong emotional reaction in spectators. The film was distributed and shown in schools and cultural events in an effort to educate future generations about the horror of war and the dangers of nuclear holocaust.

Does the peace education intended by these films in terms of content, production and ethical commitment achieve universal meaning? Donald Richie argues that Hiroshima and Nagasaki should be viewed principally as “symbols,” not only for the Japanese but also for the world (Broderick, 1999). The peace movement in Hiroshima and Nagasaki evokes universal associations of apocalypse and its intentions are to teach not only the Japanese but the entire world about the dangers of nuclear holocaust. Yoneyama critiques the universalist message of peace created by the anti-bomb discourses surrounding Hiroshima and Nagasaki. They stand as symbols both of nuclear atrocity and of the peace that followed WWII. Her study outlines the discrepant memories around Hiroshima that defy the ideal of universal collectivity. “The memories of Hiroshima’s destruction, secured within the global narrative of the universal history of humanity has thus sustained, at least in the dominant historical discourse, a national victimology and phantasm of innocence throughout most of the postwar years” (1999:13). For Yoneyama, both the universalist discourse of nuclear atrocity and that of peace were haunted by an inadequate coming to terms with Japan’s imperial past and they served the specific interests of Japan-U.S. alliance.2

While I agree with Yoneyama’s critique, I want to point out that the traumatic shock of atomic bombing prevented a successful coming to terms with history at this moment in time. The films turn historical events into a visceral, emotional experience, recreated via the representation of bodily suffering and agony. I argue that the representation of bodily pain in these two films has three aspects: emphasis on suffering and victimisation as a form of national mourning; the cinematic recreation/ repetition of a historical traumatic experience charged with powerful affect; and, lastly, inculcating a visceral aversion to war due to the association of war with agony and pain.

I will examine Hiroshima’s role in peace education by bringing into dialogue theories of traumatic representation with Linda Williams’ notion of “body genres.” For Cathy Carruth, “to be traumatised is to be possessed by an image or an event” (1995:5). The traumatic experience has only affect, not meaning, and it is inscribed directly on the body. While this theory refers to the effect of trauma on the individual, what effect does its visual representation create? The films recreate real traumatic experiences, vicariously engaging spectators with historical trauma. Although Linda Williams deals with entertaining, popular genres, her observations about the relationship between body and cinema is valid for exploring the atomic bomb films. She notes as one feature of the body genre the “spectacle of a body caught in the grip of intense sensation and emotion” (1991:4). One central idea in her argument is that when viewing body genres, spectators are “caught up in an almost involuntary mimicry of the emotion or sensation of the onscreen bodies” (William, 1991:4). The representation of intense feelings connected to the body such as pain, fear, pleasure, involves spectators at a bodily level through visceral contagion. Hiroshima represents the atrocity of nuclear death and pain, inducing a visceral reaction in spectators through the association of war with intense anguish and suffering. This might be called visceral education, because it disengages spectators from war at an almost unconscious, somatic level. They engage spectators in what Kaplan referred to as “vicarious traumatisation” (2005:10).

There are two problems with the representation of historical trauma through bodily injury in terms of peace education. First, aversion to war does not necessarily lead to an understanding of what peace implies. Second, identification is correlated with experience, and experience with national identity. Although we share bodily vulnerability to pain and death as human beings in general, the cinematic representation of pain and suffering will have a much deeper impact on people who are closer to the experience through national or other forms of collective identification.

While Children of Hiroshima’s reliance on melodramatic strategies failed to offer an adequate discourse of peace education, Hiroshima offered an important lesson in affective, somatic antiwar responses created through vicarious traumatisation.

The Human Condition and Moral Peace Education

The Human Condition is based on a six-volume best-selling novel by Gomikawa Junpei (1916-1995). In each part of this over nine-hour long epic, Kobayashi portrays the contradictions between various dehumanising ideologies and the main character’s humanist conviction. Each part of the film critiques a certain institution: capitalist imperial exploitation, the imperial military, combat ideology and finally, communism. Part one, No Greater Love, portrays the main character’s failure to implement more humane treatment of Chinese labourers in a slave labour camp run by the Japanese in Manchuria. The second part, A Soldier’s Prayer, is a searing exposure of the cruelty and sadism in the imperial military system that Kaji (Tatsuya Nakadai) must join after being drafted. Part three, The Road to Eternity, problematises Kaji’s identity as a Japanese at the end of the war, hated by the Chinese and imprisoned by the Russians.

The film follows a single male character from the period of the Japanese occupation of Manchuria through the capture of Japanese soldiers by the Russians in 1945, after the Japanese surrender. There is a tension between his pacifist principles and the dehumanising institutions of militarism, colonial capitalism and Stalinism, which create moments of high emotional intensity. This tension remains unresolved, and the film ends with the death of the hero. One important difference from both the atomic bomb films and from the majority of antiwar films produced in this period is that it creates a pacifist, humanist message by incorporating the whole history of Japan’s involvement in WWII: imperial expansion, militarism, the Sino-Japanese war and the Pacific War. This historical perspective offers a moral lesson about the systematic nature of war suffering, which is produced through the cooperation of dehumanising institutions. The peace lessons offered by the traumatic representation of extreme bodily suffering in Hiroshima is replaced by a minute exploration of technologies of bodily control and dehumanisation. These bodily technologies make war possible through systematic alienation of individuals from other individuals and of bodies from human, subjective emotions.

Made fourteen years after the end of the war, the text of the film has an emotional authority that goes beyond national victimisation towards the incorporation of what had been repressed from Japan’s history, namely its colonial aggression. Kobayashi, the film’s director, was himself conscripted to war despite being a self-avowed pacifist. He refused to be promoted from the rank of the private as a manifestation of his critical attitude, an attitude that finds full expression in his film. (Bock, 1978: 248) The film has become for Kobayashi the expression of his personal experience and philosophical problems of Japan’s WWII trauma. The main character acts as the postwar conscience based on a universalising discourse of peace that constantly challenges the imperial aggressive war and attempts to atone for it. The film stresses out the moral implications of peace by criticising three dehumanising regimes. Evil is not only war but all institutions that strip human beings of their humanity through the power of some people to subjugate and oppress others. The Human Condition does not only represent the pain and suffering of war but it also creates a discourse of pacifism as an ideal threatened by institutional and ideological power. As Harris and Morrison have shown, pacifism is an act of human repentance, “the acknowledgment of violence in ourselves and others,” and it implies a form of humanity that rejects power (Harris and Morrison, 2003:20).

The main character in The Human Condition is a mediating consciousness between the pacifist postwar period and the war experience itself, embodying an idealistic pacifism that critiques dehumanising ideological systems. The individual becomes a vehicle for the exploration and denunciation of military ideology as well as for the representation of a possible universal humanism quenched by national institutions. At the level of national subjectivity, both victimisation and war responsibility are explored by the film; we can find in it the paradoxical core of Japan’s cultural dilemma after WWII. Blind obedience to authority and lack of individual thought were deemed responsible for the Japanese version of fascism, an idea explored by The Human Condition through the complicated relationship between the individual and the ideological technologies of power that produce the subject. This idea brings me back to my question in the beginning of this essay. Is pacifism a form of universal humanism that transcends national boundaries by acknowledging our shared humanity?

The first part, No Greater Love, describes the main character’s efforts to find a middle ground between abusive colonial practices and his deep conviction that “human beings must be treated as human beings.” He comes into conflict with two foremen who symbolise the corruption of the colonial industrial system. According to this system, the goal of production exceeds any consideration for the conditions in which production takes place. When Kaji (Nakadai Tatsuya) complains to the mine manager, his view is that in a state of war, one cannot stop to ask moral questions. These two justifications allow for the cruel and sadistic exploitation enacted by the two foremen who do not regard the Chinese labourers as human beings. The situation gets worse when the military police enter the scene and propose to send POWs as slave labourers.

The most important scene represents Kaji’s interaction with the leader of the Chinese POWs. The head of the military police requires them to guard the prisoners and not allow them to escape but a few of them do. Kaji tries to cover over the incident but Okazaki reports to the military police that some prisoners have escaped. The brutal and sadistic head of the military police decides that the seven men who had allegedly attempted escape should be executed. Kaji desperately tries to call off the execution but to no avail. Before the execution he talks to the leader of the POWs. The shot-reverse-shots are interspersed with close-ups of their faces on either side of the electrified barbed wire. Their belief in humanism unites them but the war circumstances force them apart. Wang pinpoints Kaji’s situation: “your life has been a series of errors stemming from the conflict between your work and yourself… It goes without saying, this moment is the crossroad. Will you just wear the mask of humanism, while being an accomplice to these murders, or will you restore the beautiful name of humanity?” This is a fundamental question that haunted many pacifist intellectuals like Kobayashi during and after WWII. Kaji fails to convince his superiors and thus loses faith in himself. The first part of the film ends with his imprisonment and torture at the hands of the military police. He is finally drafted to the army, another institution of dehumanisation and cruelty. The main character is a subject of ideology through the enactment of colonial exploitation and war violence but at the same time his inner self struggles against these ideologies, finding meaning in affective relationships.

The second part of the film portrays Kaji’s indictment of the entire military system based on the brutalisation of the weak and providing training for cruelty and sadism. The army as a state repressive apparatus enacts its ideology through punitive force generally on the body. I will turn to Michel Foucault in order to explain how power inscribes the body. Foucault outlines the military dream of society also present in the Japanese imperial army, a dream in contradiction to Kaji’s humanist ideals. “As for the military dream of society; its fundamental reference was not to the state of nature but to the meticulously subordinated cogs of a machine, not to the primal social contract but to permanent coercions, not to fundamental rights but to indefinitely progressive forms of training, not to the general will but to automatic docility” (1997:69). What is important for Foucault in this political anatomy of the body is the link between increased aptitude and subjection to an increased domination. The purpose of discipline is to make the individual body a functional part of the war machine, operating in perfect order and compliance with other individuals acting in the same way. In the colonial-industrial system, cruelty and violence were justified for production, while in the army violent punishment was allowed, for the purposes of making the individual body functional as a machine in combat. The harsh discipline of the body forms military subjects that repress individual affect. We can see throughout the second part of the film the mechanisation of men’s bodies through severe training, punishment and deprivation. As Foucault suggests, “the naturalisation of the power through the body required it to be docile in its minutest operations” (1997:156). The posture of the soldiers’ bodies in the film acquires the uncanny appearance of automatons.

The individual in the army is almost anatomically part of a larger system. The distribution in the military barracks partition the individual in order to survey him; but at the same time, it creates rank hierarchies, against which the film directs most of its criticism. Besides the grueling training, recruits are abused by second- or third-year privates who are in turn abused by veterans. After being promoted, Kaji tries to protect the new recruits from the sadistic abuse of veterans; he is abused many times in their place. In a Foucauldian sense, he is only partly constituted by power and thus does not entirely become its vehicle. His inner self remains protected from the inscription of discipline on his body. He tells his men that they must make individual judgments during combat, in stark contradiction with the usage of signals that Foucault mentions as an important part of military discipline.

Part three, The Road to Eternity, scrutinises the chaos at the end of the war and criticises the ideology of communism that in Kaji’s and his friend’s dreams offers equality for all human beings. Surviving the onslaught of Russian tanks, Kaji and two of his men head towards South Manchuria. The defeat temporarily places Kaji back in the situation he longed for, that of the individual who is not subjected to ideologies against his will. However, he carries in his memory the unbearable weight of his identity as an instrument of power, his subjection to abusive systems. His relative freedom places him within a clash of ideologies, some of them on the brink of extinction. From the point of the view of the army, he must be either dead or a deserter, while from the point of view of the Russians and Chinese he is a war criminal.

On their way they witness the violence of the Russians who rape and kill refugee women. When they finally end up in a Soviet labour camp, all their illusions about communism crumble. In an ironic reversal of situations, Kaji becomes a POW and he endures grueling treatment. Russians, too, value authoritarian tyranny, abusive hierarchies and hostility towards the individual similar to the Japanese feudal system. Despite his constant criticism of the dehumanising Japanese colonial and army systems, he is perceived as the embodiment of the Japanese military. He tries to defend himself by arguing against the power exercised by all ideological systems and placing individual life as the only value but the translator misinterprets his words. “Russia’s mission too sacrifices individuals… the fact that socialism is better than fascism won’t keep us alive.” The film comes full circle in a bitter irony and ends with his death of cold and starvation after escaping from the POW camp.

As Standish suggests, “the only possible solution is his death as the technologies of power operating on him are too great for human life to withstand” (2005: 141). Kaji’s death enacts the myth of the tragic figure, operating the identification with failure ubiquitously present in Japan’s postwar discourse. Does his death create the message that the mechanisms of power prevail over human dignity, empathy and sense of justice? It is a pessimistic ending, in tone with the disillusionment and despair faced by many intellectuals in the aftermath of war, but I argue that the film creates an important lesson for peace through its critique of power institutions that create disciplined subjects. The ideologies of the Japanese colonial system, the army system and socialism are all dehumanising ideologies that Kaji marginally challenges and the film criticises. The collective and the individual problematised in the postwar Japanese discourse are inextricably linked while victimisation coexists with war responsibility.

The Human Condition highlights peace not as the absence of war but as a permanent struggle against ideological systems that alienate people from other people and colonise subjectivities through the disciplining of bodies. The suffering in the war is a systematic buildup of violent institutions rather than the result of a single horrific event like the nuclear bombing. The film’s exploration of Japan’s imperial violence offers a politicised version of peace education through the witnessing of Japan’s war atrocities and its focus on the moral dilemmas of the individual’s subjection to national institutions of power. In Kaplan’s words, the position of witness is the “most politically viable, keeping cognitive distance and awareness denied to the victim by the traumatic process” (2005: 10-11). The peace lesson offered by the film is the critique of nationalism from the point of view of a witnessing subject, as a system that alienates individuals from their humanity.


I have analysed in this paper the cinematic strategies used by Children of Hiroshima, Hiroshima and The Human Condition to address Japan’s past as a peace lesson for the future. Placing them in the context of critiques brought against Japanese artistic and intellectual production for failing to come to terms with Japan’s past, I have argued that all three films are anchored in nationalist discourse but their message aims to reach a universal dimension in terms of peace education. The most viable and politicised lesson appears in The Human Condition through the position of the witness who exposes the colonisation of subjectivities by systematic violent institutions that lead to war and suffering. It is also one of the very few films made in the 1960s that portrays Japan’s imperial past. Hiroshima offers a less politicised peace lesson as visceral traumatisation through the inscription of aversion to war on spectators’ bodies. Children of Hiroshima is less effective in terms of peace education because it offers a melodramatic discourse of forgetting and healing that dominated the popular cinematic representation of WWII. Given the postwar politics in Japan and the failure of the massive protests against The Treaty of Mutual Cooperation between Japan and U.S. in 1960, peace education in Japan remained tied with the universal anti-nuclear movement haunted by Japan’s problematic relationship with its past. The effectiveness of peace education lies in the dialogue between the past tainted by national atrocities and the ideal of pacifism as respect for human life and awareness of institutions of power. Although the films are problematic in terms of their focus on national suffering, they also try to transcend national boundaries reminding us of a repressed sense of shared humanity.


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[1] It is also worth mentioning that it was released in U S. only in 2011.

[2] See especially the “we” controversy of the epitaph at Hiroshima: “please rest in peace/For we shall not repeat the mistake: (yasuraka ni nemutte kudasai/ayamchi wa kurikaeshimasenu kara) in Yoneyama, Hiroshima Traces, 15-20.

About the Author

Bianca Briciu is a PhD candidate in Cultural Mediations, at Carleton University, Ottawa, Canada.

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