The greatest horror of all

Films which paid homage to the greatest real-life horror Japan has experienced


Onibaba (1964) recalls the horror of the nuclear bomb.
Onibaba (1964) recalls the horror of the nuclear bomb.

How many ways are there of making a good movie about something as unthinkable as a nuclear holocaust? Glancing through film history, there have been (at least) these modes: savage comedy; earnest message-mongering; fantasy involving primordial monsters; horror; B-movie hysteria; and 94-year-old Bertrand Russell in bright red shoes, giving his “blessings” to Rajendra Kumar (but more on this anon).

To appreciate the variety, consider two films released in 1964. Stanley Kubrick’s Dr Strangelove Or: How I Learned To Stop Worrying And Love The Bomb, a jet-black satire about the Cold War jugalbandi leading to mutually assured destruction, closes with a visual symphony of mushroom clouds—eerily beautiful, like those Nasa photographs of galaxies in cloud formation—drifting across a desolate, sterilized earth. On the soundtrack, Vera Lynn’s mellifluous voice sings We’ll Meet Again. A film that shows us the very worst of humankind—hubristic politicians, mad scientists—ends with a snatch of lovely music that only our doomed species could have produced. That same year, Sidney Lumet’s Fail-Safe covered similar ground, albeit more solemnly: An unauthorized first strike leads to events spiralling out of control. In contrast to the mordant irony of Kubrick’s film, Fail-Safe ends with a rapid burst of freeze frames, images of New Yorkers caught in the everyday bustle of life, chatting, playing, unaware of what is about to rain down from the sky.

As a teenager, I had little doubt that Dr Strangelove was the far superior film: Surely, absurdist comedy was the best approach to this subject. Today, while I still think Dr Strangelove is better, I am more tolerant of the verging-on-pedantic art about tragic events. I can understand why another great director, Akira Kurosawa, said this about one of his least-seen films, I Live In Fear (1955): “We set out to make a satire, but how do you make a satire on the H-bomb? It was very difficult for us to keep a distance from the subject.”

One can see why Kurosawa and his crew would view Hiroshima and its aftermath through a prism different from the Americans. I Live In Fear is about crippling paranoia—an old businessman, played by Toshirô Mifune, is so haunted by the possibility of another atom-bomb attack that he wants to move his family to South America—and this is emphasized by the film’s visual language. A few years earlier, in Rashomon, Kurosawa had offered poetic, dreamlike shots of the sun glimpsed through a forest canopy. In I Live In Fear, the sun’s gloves are off, so to speak: There are harsh shots set in the blazing outdoors; it’s as if the narrative is infected by survivors’ memories of a blinding white flash. The film works on another plane too. For viewers familiar with Kurosawa’s work, Mifune is the swaggering, indomitable Samurai hero of films like The Hidden Fortress and Yojimbo (and the pretender who becomes a hero in Seven Samurai). He is the alpha male who can mow down everything in his path with panache—but here he is, in I Live In Fear, playing a character twice his age, a man depressed and frightened. The horror is even more palpable: The mere thought of the bomb can turn the best of us into quivering jelly.

Incidentally, the veteran Takashi Shimura, who plays a doctor in this film, had played a similarly oracular part in another, very different sort of movie with atomic-age resonance: the 1954 Gojira (aka Godzilla), which is about a giant monster—a product of nuclear testing—that wreaks havoc on Tokyo. Any fan of fantasy and horror knows that these genres often address real-world troubles, moulding them into new shapes. One of my favourite films, Kaneto Shindô’s Onibaba, is set in medieval Japan but invokes the memory of Hiroshima and Nagasaki in scenes where a face beneath a demon mask is shown to be similar to the disfigured visages of 1945’s victims. Within the context of Onibaba’s story (about two women killing wounded Samurai and selling their armour for food), there is no reason for such an allusion, except this: A film-maker is admitting that he can’t tell a horror story without at least one homage-reference to the greatest real-life horror his country has experienced.

Speaking of which, Saira Banu once played a Japanese woman named Meloda in a Hindi film. Sorry, I know that’s an inappropriate quip, especially since the 1967 Aman is for much of its duration a dignified film. Rajendra Kumar plays Dr Gautamdas, who goes to Japan to work with the victims of nuclear radiation and spread the message of world peace. Before doing this, though, he is granted an appointment with his idol, the “mahapurush” Bertrand Russell, who delivers a brief monologue. It’s one of the most unexpected cameos ever, but it shouldn’t detract from Aman’s mournful and conscientious approach to its subject. I’m not sure that a mainstream Hindi film made in today’s increasingly jingoistic climate would be so strongly pacifist, or treat the bomb with as much dread—especially now that we are nuclear-empowered ourselves.

Above The Line is a fortnightly column on Hindi cinema and how it presents the world. Jai Arjun Singh tweets at @jaiarjun.

Also Read: Jai’s previous Lounge columns

READ MORE