A Japanese man and a French woman meet and become lovers in Hiroshima in 1959. The woman is in Japan to act in a film aimed at promoting peace. The intensity of this brief love affair allows her to revisit the trauma of her first love at the age of 18 with an occupying German soldier in Nevers in France during the Second World War. Everything that happens occurs explicitly against the backdrop of the dropping of the atomic bomb on Hiroshima in 1945 and implicitly against the tension of the Cold War arms race of the 1950s.
In July 1945 scientists in the United States tested the first atomic bomb in New Mexico. On 6 August, as part of the endgame of the Second World War and with Germany defeated, an atom bomb was dropped on Hiroshima in Japan. The bomb levelled the city and caused around 80,000 immediate deaths. Three days later a second atom bomb was dropped, this time on Nagasaki, causing 40,000 deaths. On 14 August Japan surrendered. In 1952 the United States tested its first hydrogen bomb. Less than a year later, the Soviet Union tested its first hydrogen bomb. The Cold War was fully underway. Hiroshima mon amour has to be seen against the historical background offered by the Second World War and the Cold War, and more specifically against the backdrop of the emergence of thermonuclear warfare.
The film is both an exploration of the nature of human society and in investigation of individual human experience. At the beginning of the film the central female character tells her Japanese lover she has paid four visits to the Hiroshima Peace Memorial Museum.1 Her recall of this place along with her testimony to the impact it has had on her enables the filmmakers to take us on a virtual tour of the museum. The full horror of the brutality of war is brought home to the viewer.2 Over a shot of exhibits in glass jars such as might be seen in a laboratory, her voiceover records, ‘Human skin, floating loose, still bearing the fresh bloom of suffering’. The poetry of Duras’s language (here centred in the tension created between the idea of ‘fresh bloom’ set against the dreadfulness of the rest of the sentence) continually forces us to reflect longer and harder on a subject we might already find distressing enough.
But we might also note the strength of political conviction inherent in the words and images we are shown. When, for example, over shots of Japanese protests and demonstrations against nuclear weapons,3 the woman tells us, ‘Anger stirred whole towns’, Duras goes on via her character to tell us who these people were angry with.
“They were angered whether they knew it or not by the fundamental inequality imposed by some nations on others, by the fundamental inequality imposed by some races on others, by the fundamental inequality imposed by some classes on others.”
If this is the voice of the woman, it is also the polemical stance of Duras. Hiroshima mon amour exists within a strong socio-political context; in part the motivation behind the film is the straightforward desire to document within a forceful fictional narrative the obscenity of a thermonuclear attack.
However, Resnais and Duras have chosen not to use the documentary form but to frame documentary aspects within a tragic love story. They are aware of the problems inherent in making a film about ‘Hiroshima’: how could a film crew from the West, fly to Japan for a few weeks or months and hope to create a record of such an experience?4 In their film the woman asks at one point: ‘What can a tourist do other than weep?’ And this highlights the problem; when all is said and done, they are ‘tourists’. 5
At the same time, the film that is eventually created also clearly demonstrates the awareness of Resnais and Duras that neither ‘documenting’ nor ‘fictionalising’ human experience is in any way ‘straightforward’. How can the experience of Hiroshima on August 6th 1945 be ‘experienced’ after and beyond the event itself? Even exhibits in the museum cannot move beyond being ‘reconstructions’ as the woman frequently acknowledges.
Despite her attempt to recount precisely all she has seen in Hiroshima relating to the bombing, the woman’s Japanese lover repeatedly tells her, ‘You saw nothing in Hiroshima’. The first time he says this, she responds, ‘I saw everything; everything’. 6 There is, of course, a sense in which she did see ‘everything’; she did see some sort of record of all that wo/man is capable of inflicting on fellow human beings, and she did, therefore, ‘see’ in a way some sort of definitive statement of all that there is to be said about wo/man. In another sense she saw ‘nothing’ of the real horror of the actual experience of the bomb and its immediate aftermath. And yet, in the deeper, more profound, sense in which the word ‘nothing’ has often been used in literature, she did see the emptiness, the hollowness, the ‘nothingness’ of human life and the individual human experience.
In an effort to counter his repeated pronouncement in the first few minutes of the film that she saw nothing she has her own mantra-like, repeated phrase. ‘Four visits to the museum in Hiroshima’, she recites, as if the precision of her documentation (‘four times’) and the sheer number of visits must mean she has acquired some type of solid, factual knowledge.
Echoing the man’s use of ‘nothing’, the woman sums up her problem, that is also the problem for Resnais and Duras, and the problem for us both as viewers of the film and as people looking back on the dropping of the atom bomb:
“I saw people walking round. People walking pensively past photographs, reconstructions: since there is nothing else. Photographs, photographs, reconstructions: since there is nothing else. Descriptions, since there is nothing else.”
And yet, she clings to the attempt to use language and memory and her own ‘reconstructions’ of events in order to hold on to something rather than nothing. The repetition in the language use here is part of the effort to attempt to provide some sort of solidity and certainty; and it echoes the way in which we repeat remembered narratives of the past in an attempt to hold on to something of the past.
What quickly becomes clear is that beyond the socio-political macro world, the filmmakers are intensely interested in the individual human experience. The long opening sequence juxtaposes the naked bodies of the lovers in all their vulnerability with footage of the aftermath of the atomic attack. The whole film might be seen as an examination of the human ability for love and tenderness, set against the equally powerful human ability for hatred and destruction. Time and again, we cut back to the lovers either from some image of physically scarred and maimed bodies or from the traumatised stare of a victim. The juxtaposing of images, and the setting of words against contrasting images, forms a key part of the film technique. As the voiceover describes flowers ‘springing reborn from the ashes’, we see images of doctors and nurses working on the burns of adults and children.
From the first images, when we see only entwined parts of the bodies of the lovers and are denied an establishing shot, the viewer is constantly challenged to make sense of what she is seeing. If meaning exists, it is to be found somewhere within the complexity and the contradictions.
The story of the woman’s experiences in Hiroshima is interrupted by flashbacks, which are used to intensify the sense of the character’s mental state; and yet, we are never entirely certain if any of this is fantasy rather than memory. ‘When you talk, I don’t know if you are lying or telling the truth’, says the man. To which he receives the enigmatic response, ‘I lie. And I tell the truth’. Of course, for Resnais and Duras, if what constitutes ‘knowledge’ is problematic and ‘memory’ is highly questionable, then the whole nature of ‘truth’ is, to say the least, rather tricky.
Furthermore, the uncertainties attaching to communication mean there is always distance between people however close their bodies may be as lovers. Next morning he is asleep and she is up and on the balcony. She has a brief flashback, a memory of a dead man on the ground, her German lover in the war. She re-enters the room, her Japanese lover wakes, and instantly she asks, ‘Coffee?’ What is captured is how much both our memories and our minds are our own, and how they operate in parallel with and often dislocated from our day-to-day functioning selves.
The greatest terror for our central female character is the way in which human beings inevitably forget. The immediate pain fades and we forget, both as individuals and collectively as societies. However intense the experience our memories always fade. ‘Like you’, says the woman, ‘I am endowed with memory. I know what it is to forget.’ The two aspects of human experience, ‘memory’ and ‘forgetting’, are yoked together so strongly that they are the same thing: memory is forgetfulness, to remember is to forget. The man’s response is, ‘No, you are not endowed with memory’. And, of course, he is right. Human beings do not have the ability to remember, they have the talent to forget. Interestingly, she is not really disagreeing with him. Like characters in a Samuel Beckett play they are coming at the same question from different angles, batting it back and forth between them.7 ‘Listen, I know’, she says, ‘I know everything; life went on’. And this is the point, she suggests, however horrific the experience may be, however traumatising, life will go on. The concept of ‘I know’ is usually highly problematic in that philosophically we might say it is impossible to ‘know’ anything; but, on all the evidence, this is one thing we can ‘know’ she goes on to suggest. It should not be possible after the death of a lover for life to go on, but it does; equally, it should not be possible after Hiroshima for another such event to take place, but it will.
“Listen to me. I know this too: it will happen again.”
1. This was opened in the Peace Memorial Park with its Memorial Cenotaph just four years before Hiroshima mon amour was filmed.
2. ‘Awakening in the morning, the women found their hair had fallen out’, says the woman in voiceover, and the mere mention of ‘hair’ alongside images of women with apparently shaven heads creates an intertextual reference not only to newsreel footage of Holocaust death camps but also to Resnais’s earlier film, Nuit et Brouillard/Night and Fog (1956).
3. In 1954, the United States exploded a 15- megaton (one megaton is an explosion equivalent to one million tons of TNT) nuclear bomb in the Marshall Islands. The radioactive fallout from this weapon was immense and dusted a Japanese boat, the Lucky Dragon, tuna-fishing 160 km from the test site.
4. ‘The power relationships in the film are complex, since the narrative is centred in a Western character visiting Japan, yet that character is a woman, inverting a gendered hierarchy of unequal cultural relationships.’ (Scott Nygren, Time Frames: Japanese Cinema and the Unfolding of History, Minneapolis, MN, University of Minnesota Press, 2007, p. 187.)
5. This is a particularly intense example of the problem with all forms of knowledge and the whole idea of what it means to ‘know’. When the man says he cannot imagine Nevers, she responds, ‘Nevers. 40,000 inhabitants. Built as a country seat’, as if encyclopaedic knowledge really helps someone to ‘know’ something.
6. Her response is given over a black screen.
7. ‘One must avoid thinking of the difficulties this world presents, otherwise it would be unbearable’, for example, could come straight from any dramatist working within what Martin Esslin classified as Theatre of the Absurd.
Cast and Crew:
[Country: France and Japan. Production Company: Argos Films, Como Films, Daiei Studios and Pathé Entertainment. Director: Alain Resnais. Screenwriter: Marguerite Duras. Cinematographers: Sacha Vierny and Takahashi Michio. Music: Georges Delerue and Giovanni Fusco. Cast: Emmanuelle Riva (Woman/French actor/‘Nevers’), Eiji Okada (Man/Japanese architect/‘Hiroshima’).]
Kyo Maclear, ‘The Limits of Vision: Hiroshima Mon Amour and the Subversion of Representation’ in Ana Douglass (ed.), Witness and Memory: The Discourse of Trauma, New York and London, Routledge, 2003, pp. 233–48.
Emma Wilson, Alain Resnais, Manchester, Manchester University Press, 2006.
The Routledge Encyclopedia of Films, Edited by Sarah Barrow, Sabine Haenni and John White, first published in 2015.