Hiroshima in Movies: Reflections then and now

At the 70th anniversary of the bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, many teachers and small-group leaders are looking for films that might spark a good discussion.


If you search Netflix or Amazon for movies about Hiroshima and Nagasaki you’ll discover the problem Americans faced for decades after the bombing in learning what actually happened in those cities. A ReadTheSpirit story about the anniversary explains the years of U.S. censorship of the bombs’ effects. For decades, Hollywood’s films about WWII’s end tended to focus on American heroism and ignore what had unfolded in Japan.

However, filmmakers’ perspectives changed in recent decades. One film that I recommend (along with discussion questions) is the gripping 1990 film, Out of the Ashes, based on some of the survivor accounts of the Hiroshima bombing and including stories of the few Americans who were on the ground at the time. I also suggest using the 1991 film, Rhapsody in August, which was directed by the great Akira Kirosawa.


There are at least three recent films that refer to the dropping of the bomb on Hiroshima:

MR. HOLMES—In theaters now, I give Mr. Holmes 4.5 out of 5 stars overall. Included in the movie, which is set in 1947 when Holmes is 93, is a visit to Japan at the invitation of an admirer—who has ulterior motives he learns later. Faced with an increasing loss of memory, the detective has become an avid beekeeper because the worker bees produce royal jelly, said to alleviate some of the symptoms of aging. Lured by the prospect of obtaining another substance with similar therapeutic properties, prickly ash, Holmes goes with his host to the ruined city of Hiroshima in search of the plant. It is quite a moving sight, the two figures walking though the still blackened cityscape. In the background we see the ruins of the domed civic building that has been kept in the same condition as a memorial. Spotting a plant, they brush aside the ashes, and Holmes digs it up so he can take it back to England. This is a curious touch to the film, perhaps suggesting that healing can emerge from destruction, a measure of good from the results of the madness of war.

LITTLE BOY—Some critics have savaged this new film, Little Boyset in California in the WWII era, but I give it 3 stars and see some value in the movie. The bombing of Hiroshima is an important event for its pint-sized protagonist Pepper Busbee, who lives with his family in a seaside town in northern California. The story begins just before Pearl Harbor, and Pepper is so small of stature that he is always referred to as “Little Boy.” He is constantly harassed by his schoolmates. Little Boy is upset when his supportive father goes off to war, and devastated when word arrives that the father has been taken prisoner by the Japanese. Through a strange set of circumstances the boy comes to believe that he has magical powers, so every day he stands at the shore facing west and extends his arms to produce the magic that will add to his prayers for his father’s safe return. The news that the war has ended reaches the town, with both he and the people who had been watching him every evening believing that his “magic” had contributed to the end. They remark that the name of the first atom bomb that ended the war was the same as Pepper’s. At first I thought this was a grotesque touch, but the filmmakers did include a dream sequence in which the boy sees the horrific results of the bomb, including a circle of children’s blackened bodies, their hands grasped together. Presumably this tempers Pepper’s jubilation. Given that American attitudes in that era favored the American war effort, including the bomb, this film can provoke spirited discussion. See it—and draw your own conclusions.

THE 100-YEAR-OLD MAN … The 100 Year-old Man Who Climbed Out a Window and Disappeared is a dark comedy much like Forest Gump and Zelig. Within the film there are flashbacks to the main character’s past when he met such famous people as General Franco, Stalin, Robert Oppenheimer, Harry Truman, and Einstein (actually the latter a fictional twin named Herbert). Alan finds himself as a lowly staff member in the Manhattan Project serving coffee when he makes a suggestion that inspires Oppenheimer to finally solve a problem in uniting two hemispheres of plutonium without a premature explosion. Thus he is present in New Mexico when the experimental test bomb is set off.

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