April 2, 2011

"Hiroshima, Mon Amour": A Meditation on Memory

Embracing bodies, covered in dust, as though buried long ago, barely emerge from the dark. The particles of dust become sparkles of light, and then flesh emerges whole. It is a perfect beginning for a film about love and loss, war and horror, and the terrible ease of forgetting. I wanted to acknowledge the ongoing tragedy of earthquake, tsunami, and now nuclear disaster in Japan; discussing Hiroshima Mon Amour is a vehicle for me to obliquely honor those affected.

The film, made in 1959, at the beginning of the Ban the Bomb campaigns, was originally conceived as an anti-war documentary to be set in Hiroshima, the site of one of the two atomic bombs dropped on Japan in 1945. The director, Alain Resnais, instead enlisted the novelist Marguerite Duras to write a fictional screenplay. Her dreamlike, repetitive, incantatory prose, combined with compelling imagery and the beautifully delicate score by Giovanni Fusco, takes us into a world of intense feeling and regret.

It is a love story. A French actress, in Hiroshima to make a peace film, and a Japanese architect, neither of whom are named, meet and love over a day. In that time they, mostly she, talks. She goes to the Museum:
He: You saw nothing at Hiroshima. Nothing.
She: Four times at the Museum at Hiroshima.
The photographs, the photographs, the reconstructions for lack of anything else.
Metal made as vulnerable as flesh.
He: you saw nothing at Hiroshima. Nothing.
He was at war when the bomb was dropped; he lost his family. To him, she saw nothing. Can we know what we do not experience?

She had her own small, personal story of war loss; her Japanese lover's sleeping hand brought back the pain of seeing the dead hand of her youthful lover, another impossible love. When she was 18 in the French village of Nevers, she fell in love with a German soldier.

He was killed, she was disgraced. What in other circumstances would be innocent love, in wartime became a crime. She had told this story to no one, not her French husband, only to Him, her Japanese lover. They spoke of the tragedy of forgetting; she feels she is forgetting the German, her first great love, and she begins to conflate the Japanese with the German.
She: Like you, I know what it is to forget.
He: No, you don't know what it is to forget.
She: Like you, I too have struggled with all my might not to forget.
Like you, I forgot.
As we all have.
Can we live without forgetting?

In her he sees "a thousand women in one". In both of them we see the tragedies of war, huge and small. In the final scene they finally name each other:
She: Hiroshima. That's your name.
He: Yes, that's my name. And your name is Nevers, Nevers in France.


  1. thanks for reminding me of this film, appreciated your eloquence....

  2. I had a friend, Walter Hooke, who was at Nagasake soon after it was bombed, stationed there. He befriended the Japanese doctor who took care of the radiation victims, before the himself succumbed. He also befriended the Bishop of Nagasake. A few years ago I had a chance to go there. Walter had a photo of the bombed out cathedral with several beheaded statues in front of it. They had restored both the cathedral and the statues. I was able to bring him a picture of that. After the war, Walter returned to the States and worked tirelessly for human rights. His niece is Sister Megan, the 84 year old nun who was recently sentenced to 3 years in jail for breaking into a nuclear facility. She did it to show how vulnerable we are, so vulnerable that an 84 year old woman with a fence cutter and the help of two 70 year old men were able to break in and go undetected for 45 minutes. They waited there to be arrested. Their point was to highlight this problem. Both Walter and Megan are people of great integrity and courage. Thank you sharing this post with us.