Bulgarians queued up on 28 January to vote in a referendum on the country’s nuclear programme. The referendum had to be scrapped because of a low turnout---around 20 %---but at least the Bulgarian public got the opportunity to voice their opinion. There doesn’t seem to a similar exercise in sight for the under-construction Kudankulam Nuclear Power Plant in Tamil Nadu, even as protests against the project continue. A documentary in support of the protests is available on NDTV’s YouTube channel.
Meanwhile, we are days away from the second anniversary of the nuclear reactor disaster in Fukushima in Japan, which continues to send ripples through the region. The series of meltdowns at the plant followed an earthquake and tsunami on 11 March, 2011. Japan has lived with the flip side of nuclear technology ever since the United States dropped two atomic bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki in 1945. Among Japanese cinema’s timely and timeless response to the horrors of the bombings is Ishiro Honda’s Gojira (Godzilla in English).
Honda’s 1954 film, which is available on the Criterion DVD label, is simplicity itself. Gojira is a 150-foot tall sea creature who passes from fishing folklore into reality when it is awakened by nuclear explosions. After smashing several ships, the monster proceeds to lay waste to Tokyo. Takashi Shimura’s scientist is torn between saving Japan and capturing the monster alive to learn its secrets. A one-eyed inventor has a weapon that might kill the giant, but its usage will have terrible consequences for aquatic life.
The special effects will seem rudimentary to modern eyes, but Honda achieves a lot with little. The monster is quite obviously a giant puppet playing with cardboard models, but Honda convincingly conveys the scale of the destruction, especially in the scene in which a train runs right into the creature’s feet.
Deep moral issues lie at the core of Gojira’s spectacle. Honda never plays the monster’s acts of destruction for irony or cheap thrills. (He does have some fun at the expense of the disaster-addicted journalists, one of whom films his own death because he is too Gojira-struck to move out of harm’s way.) The tightly plotted movie’s message against the use of nuclear weapons is unequivocal, especially in the tableau of a ravaged Tokyo that invokes the horrors of Hiroshima and Nagasaki.
Takashi Shimura, best known outside Japan for his lengthy association with Akira Kurosawa, closes the films with words that were more prophetic than Honda probably realised. “I don’t think that was the only Godzilla,” he says. “If they keep experimenting with deadly weapons, another Godzilla may appear somewhere in the world.” It did – apart from close to 30 remakes in Japan, Godzilla travelled to Hollywood a few times, and was the subject of an expensive and noisy Roland Emmerich vehicle in 1998. Stick to the original.
Kurosawa and Shimura worked together on their own nuclear movie 11 years later. I Live in Fear is a showcase of Toshiro Mifune’s ability to play an old man (he was 35 at the time) but it has a typically superb supporting cast, including Shimura as a court-appointed counsellor who is asked to arbitrate in the strange case of the Nakajima family. Mifune’s patriarch is convinced that a nuclear war is imminent and that Japan will be vapourised, so he decides to resettle his family in Brazil (hundreds of thousands of Japanese have migrated to Brazil since the early 1900s). Nobody from the family or its branches (Nakajima has been spreading his seed and also has children from various mistresses) wants to accompany the clan head on his seemingly insane quest. Kurosawa’s piercing portrait of one man’s psychological meltdown also holds a mirror to the ambition and opportunism of the modern Japanese family.
The world’s pursuit of the bomb inspired trans-continental melancholy (Alain Resnais’s Hiroshima Mon Amour) and farce (Stanley Kubrick’s Dr Strangelove or: How I Learnt to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb). Resnais’s French New Wave gem is about the second world war as experienced by a French woman shamed for being in love with a German soldier and a Japanese army recruit whose family is from Hiroshima. In Kubrick’s brilliant comedy, a nutcase American general trains nuclear warheads on the former Soviet Union for no apparent reason, memorably skewers the Cold War arms race.
The bomb sparked off the imagination of several Hollywood filmmakers, but few are as memorable as Robert Aldrich’s sexy and stylish noir Kiss Me Deadly . Based on the Mickey Spillane novel and featuring his detective creation Mike Hammer, the 1955 movie throbs with crooked characters, corrupt cops, bottle blondes and at least one very amorous secretary.
Ralph Meeker’s Hammer picks up a blonde on the run who is clad in nothing more than an overcoat one night, leading him into a maze that winds through the rich and poor quarters of Los Angeles. The dialogue is snappy, the characters, many of them shot in wide-angle close-ups, compete in the twisted stakes (the brilliant expressionist cinematography is by Ernest Laszlo), and the plotting is endlessly intriguing without being confusing. What is a noir doing in a list of nuke-themed films? Spillane aptly called it the Great Whatsit.
Films about the Indian nuclear programme and the effects of radiation on ordinary people are few and far between. There are documentaries, as always, such as Anand Patwardhan’s War and Peace and Shri Prakash’s Buddha Weeps in Jadugoda .
Partho Sen Gupta’s apocalyptic indie Hava Aney De, made in 2008, is set in a country that is processing sweeping economic changes, communal riots in Gujarat and heightened tensions with Pakistan. As India and Pakistan prepare for a nuclear war, a bunch of working-class men and women in Mumbai try to work their way out of the city and the country for good. Although the separate strands of a nation on the brink and a city on the edge don’t always reconcile, Sen Gupta effectively turns the Indian dream on its head and creates several moments of fission and frission. Hava Aney Dey ran into censorship issues in India and didn’t make it to the cinemas. The filmmaker has posted his film on Vimeo for free
This weekly series, which appears on Fridays, looks at how the cinema of the past helps us make sense of the present.