In March 1945, the firebombing of Tokyo killed 100,000 civilians and devastated 16 square miles of the city yet 70 years later those who survived have yet to be acknowledged by their government which has made no investigation or attempt to assist those who lost everything to the fires. Adrian Francis’ documentary Paper City follows a series of now elderly men and women who experienced the tragedy first hand and worry that the lessons of the past are being lost especially with the increasingly nationalistic mindset of the current government which seems hellbent on remilitarisation and the end of the pacifist constitution.
One of the chief concerns of the survivors is that there is no dedicated memorial to those died in the bombing. The remains of some victims are housed behind the memorial to the victims of the 1923 Great Kanto Earthquake, hidden away and out of sight. Survivors cite the example of other nations such as Germany in which the government has acknowledged its role in the harm caused to civilians through warfare and has acted to protect those who lost their homes, livelihoods, and families because of it. In Japan they feel ignored and forgotten, particularly aggrieved because government policy at the time exacerbated the problem in that they were instructed to stay and fight the fires rather than to evacuate the city. Many had been lulled into a false sense of security believing that as the areas they lived in were residential and had no military facilities they would not be targeted little knowing that the bombing would be indiscriminate with no intention to spare civilian life.
As one elderly man puts it, they lost everything. Only a child himself as many of these now elderly people were, he lost not only his closest family members but his home and community along with any means they may have had to support themselves economically leaving them little more than destitute beggars in the ashes of a ruined city yet the government did nothing to help them. The Morishita district is one of few that made an attempt to record the names of the victims, those who were confirmed dead and those who were assumed so whose bodies were never found, holding a memorial service for them every year. Meanwhile another man only 14 at the time recalls being drafted to help clear up bodies using firemen’s hooks to pull them from the local river and now all these years later still unable to forget the face of a young mother with a child on her back whose hands still held tight to her hair. Another recalls seeing bodies piled up in a local park and disposed of en masse without dignity or identity as if they had never existed at all.
What they fear most is being forgotten, that with the city entirely rebuilt no one even remembers anymore that it was once burnt to the ground. They petition the government for official recognition while protesting the injustice of war and the Abe administration’s determination to abandon the pacifist constitution. Protesting outside the Diet, they are ironically heckled by a nationalist counter protest who insist that the Japanese state is not at fault and the protestors should be taking their concerns to the American embassy instead. A kind of hopelessness sometimes falls over them, believing that the prospect of change is slim while the current iteration of the LDP remains in government while knowing that a change of government is also itself all but impossible.
In any case, they know that their time is running short and they will need new voices to carry their message to the next generation to ensure that the firebombing of Tokyo is never forgotten. They share their harrowing stories of rivers on fire and blood red skies as a warning to the living while honouring the souls of the dead pausing for a moment to admire the figure of a wounded tree still standing tall reaching for the sky, in its way also a monument to endurance. Mainly observational in style with some direct interviews, Francis’ documentary captures the sense of desperation in the older generation that their suffering must not be in vain hoping that their message will get through and that one day there will be no more cities of ash or lonely children left behind to mourn them.
Paper City streamed as part of this year’s Nippon Connection.
Original trailer (English subtitles)