The horrors of Hiroshima come to life from the first person in eyewitness testimony from a survivor, along with the discoveries of a filmmaker trying to uncover her family’s history with the disaster. Mitchie Takeuchi goes on a journey with us in this documentary, while forging a strong bond with international nuclear disarmament activist and Hiroshima survivor Setsuko Thurlow at the same time. (GPG: 4/5)
Review by Contributing Editor Giorgi Plys-Garzotto
I have a soft spot for documentaries where the filmmaker is trying to uncover something about themselves at the same time as they are illuminating a larger issue. That’s especially true when it lets us as viewers watch the filmmaker develop a relationship with the person who’s guiding them in this journey–for filmmaker and second generation Hiroshima survivor Mitchie Takeuchi, that’s international activist and first generation survivor Setsuko Thurlow. The personal elements of the stories from both Setsuko and Mitchie’s family make the violence of the atomic bombs more stark and harrowing than ever before. The film does a brilliant job of taking the viewer inside their relationship to be affected in the most immediate way possible.
After a chance meeting when Takeuchi served as a Japanese interpreter at one of Setsuko’s events, the two women got to talking about their shared history as Japanese ex-pats from Hiroshima. The film takes us through their early bonding as they share photos from the girl’s school they both went to in Hiroshima, and as Takeuchi tells Setsuko what she knows about her family–which is fairly little, due to the fact that many survivors of World War II’s horrors do not talk about their experiences. One reason Takeuchi was so drawn to Setsuko was the fact that Setsuko was a more illuminating connection to this aspect of her past than the vague stories from her parents provided.
Setsuko works with an organization called Stories From Hibakusha, and the film shows us the work she does in telling her story of surviving the Hiroshima bombings. At a series of talks at schools, art centers, and other venues she describes watching people melt, and carrying water in her hands to the surviving victims in the ruins of her school. She also describes how a friend of hers was trapped in the city center, where the devastation was the worst, and how she saw people carrying their melted eyeballs in their hands. As the film pans along the faces of those listening to Setsuko, it is clear that no one can hear these stories without being affected.
Setsuko’s long life of activism affected Reagan’s presidency and possibly helped to reconcile the Cold War powers in the latter half of the 20th century. While the film mostly focuses on the personal stories of these two women, the global effect of Setsuko’s work seems to have been immense. Using Canada as a base, she has traveled all over the world for international conferences, worked with many nuclear disarmament organizations, and influenced the decisions of world governments with her harrowing testimony of the tragedies at Hiroshima and Nagasaki.
While nuclear weapons are not the top geopolitical concern at this particular moment, the film draws the viewer’s attention to the odd fact that we don’t think about it more. Currently there are mutliple world governments who could start a chain reaction that would lead to the extinction of most or all of humankind. Why is that not at the top of all of our minds? It is certainly at the top of Setsuko’s mind, and Mitchie’s experience has made it a top priority for her as well. It could well be a privilege of the Western world that, as the power with the most nuclear weapons, we are more able to discount the possibility of nuclear war because we would be much more likely to start said war, and the most likely to survive it due to our equally robust defense systems. Countries like Japan, which have been victimized by the West rather than posing a nuclear threat to others, are justified in having a very different perspective.
The result of Takeuchi’s work with Setsuko is her participation in the nuclear disarmament movement, even making a speech at one of Setsuko’s larger events and being part of Setsuko’s candidacy for a Nobel Peace Prize (she won in 2017). They even caused a vote in the UN that was protested by the United States, United Kingdom, and other nuclear proliferators–a sign that their work is hitting a nerve among nations who want to keep these weapons in their possession. The connection she has found in Setsuko to her past and to a better future for all of humanity has clearly become a source of strength and identity for her, and Setsuko seems to appreciate the opportunity to share her story with someone whose connection to the subject is also so personal. Together, these two women have made a difference already, and will likely go on to make more of a different as they market this film and continue their work together.
The Vow From Hiroshima is now streaming on OVID.tv.
© Copyright FF2 Media Giorgi Plys-Garzotto (8/7/20)
Does The Vow From Hiroshima pass the Bechdel-Wallace test?
Yes! Documentaries are not really subject to the Bechdel-Wallace test in the same way because they do not feature characters and often only have one person talking to the camera at a time, meaning that it is hard for the criterion to be met by these pieces even if they are feminist works. While Mitchie Takeuchi and Setsuko Thurlow are not characters in the film due to being real people, they are women with names who talk about something other than a man.
Top Photo: Setsuko Thurlow is an international nuclear disarmament activist.
Middle Photo: Setsuko and filmmaker Mitchie Tekeuchi bond over their shared history.
Bottom Photo: Setsuko in action at a disarmament event.
Photo Credit: Bridgeseeker Productions.