A look back at the 1977 cult classic from the visionary Japanese director/screenwriter Nobuhiko Obayashi, who turned 80 this year. Part 1.
Two atomic bombs were dropped on Japan in August of 1945; ‘Little Boy’ on Hiroshima and ‘Fat Man’ on Nagasaki. What followed was cataclysmic destruction which prompted Japanese surrender and abetted an American occupation of Japan which lasted until 1952. Hundreds of thousands of Japanese civilians died in an instant, and many more died in the following decades from radiation poisoning. The decision to drop the A-bombs on Japan was met with horror, guilt, and shame by the West, but the bombs prompted an entirely different response from the Japanese people. The Japanese reaction to the A-bomb devastation was not the anger, as might have been expected, but something rooted in an avoidance, an eagerness to forget and move on. A cultural amnesia was at work, put into effect by a collective disavowal of the truth that’s deeply rooted in a traditional Japanese philosophy known as mono no aware.
This philosophy is partly due to the fact that Japan is a country constantly feeling the threat of natural disasters and literal, tangible upheaval. When calamity struck, via earthquake, tsunami, or hurricane, all people could do was pick up and move forward without dwelling upon the ‘how’ and ‘why’ of the occurrence. It was easier to act as if the A-bomb was just another catastrophe, an ‘act of god’ wreaked upon the people of Japan that was unfathomable in nature, than to recognise that it was caused by mankind. Rather than curse the gods, the Japanese people suffered their fate as victims, thereby determining the act to be a tragedy (why us?) as opposed to a Western atrocity (how could they do this to us?).
Richie labels this attitude as mono no aware, which can be translated as ‘what we feel today we forget tomorrow; this is perhaps not as it should be, but it is as it is’. Crucially, this attitude of ‘sympathetic sadness’ reflecting an emotional empathy and understanding is also one of endurance.
What the amnesia imposed by mono no aware really does, however, is ignore the historical narrative leading up to the dropping of the bomb. For, to consider the A-bomb a natural disaster, or an act of god, is to deny any responsibility for the attacks. Thus, Japan becomes the victim, denying any culpability. This was not only the most prominent attitude towards the A-bomb, but also one of the hardiest and longest lasting, and was omnipresent throughout most post-war Japanese cinema of the 1950s and 60s.
Post-war cinema in Japan which deals with the events of Hiroshima and Nagasaki is called hibakusha cinema. Hibakusha are the survivors of the atomic bombs in Hiroshima and Nagasaki, and most of the films of the 50s and 60s centred on hibakusha were sentimental melodramas, usually featuring a female protagonist. In these films, the main character was normally a ‘maiden’ who, through no fault of her own, was entangled within the war despite her innocence and naiveté. The A-bomb maidens are never fully fleshed out characters, but rather symbols; passive victims of the bomb.
The more time passed since the end of the war, however, the more the Japanese population came to see the A-bomb as an inhumane catastrophe wreaked upon them by the West. The old style of hibakusha cinema fell out of fashion, for Japan no longer viewed itself as having faced yet another natural disaster, but rather an unparalleled atrocity in all of human history.
But once filmmakers did see the bomb as a horrific manmade disaster, as opposed to an act of god, how could they possibly hope to capture it on film? Perhaps the best response to ‘chaos unleashed’ is a film that does not strive to be ordered at all, but rather a film that disavows rationality altogether.
In the 1970s, for the first time since the end of the Second World War and the American Occupation, Japanese cinema’s main audience were people who had not lived through the war, and had no first-hand experience of the bomb.
The mono no aware philosophy was of no use to post-Occupation Japan, and there was almost a feeling of resentment towards older hibakushu filmmakers for being strictly apolitical. The influential director Nagisa Oshima, whose film In the Realm of the Senses caused a great deal of controversy when initially released, said of the older generation, ‘When I look at our fathers’ generation, who defeated in war did not accept responsibility and who in the post-war period continued with the lies, I feel that we are a generation of orphans’. It was the role of the new filmmakers, then, not to shield people from the truth or to hide the memory of the bomb, but to explore these themes in new ways which reflected the attitude of their time. Because they were a generation of orphans, it was next to impossible to trace any lineage to the older hibakusha filmmakers of the 50s and 60s. If the taboo on the A-bomb as subject of artistic representation is part of a ‘culturally biased tendency to avoid socially disturbing topics’ or kusai mono ni futa o kakeru (translated to ‘putting a lid on smelly things’), then Hausu absolutely reeks.
Chaos is the prevailing theme of Nobuhiko Obayashi’s 1977 cult horror-comedy. Obayashi employs a myriad of artistic and experimental filmmaking techniques to create an atmosphere of discomfort and confusion, where memories of the past are allowed to infiltrate the present, and fact and fiction are blurred as a result. When the truth is unfathomable, the only response is something beyond the realm of rational interpretation.
Words by Jo Sterngold