Written, acted and directed with a restraint that makes it look positively alien on network television, NBC's "Hiroshima: Out of the Ashes" (Channel 4 tonight at 9 p.m.) offers a searing dramatization of the first wartime use of the atomic bomb without a single word of debate over its justification.
Based in part on the book "Hiroshima Diary" by Michihiko Hachiya, the two-hour movie tells the story of a group of Hiroshima citizens who, together with two American POWs and a German priest (Max von Sydow), struggle to overcome the devastation caused by the weapon whose shadow still haunts our age.
So unblinking is the look we get that it's almost incidental that the program is timed for the 45th anniversary of the Hiroshima bombing.
Director Peter Werner ("LBJ: The Early Years") and writer John McGreevey resisted all the heavy-handed ironies and 5-4-3-2-1 suspense hype that normally plague films about known events by focusing almost entirely on the Japanese point of view. Commendably, that view includes both the tyranny of the ruling military and the training of schoolboys in to-the-death attacks on the American servicemen expected to land any minute. "The Americans are coming," shouts their no-nonsense instructor. "Be ready for them." It's about time a film depicted World War II Japanese as more than strutting caricatures or misunderstood victims.
The film was shot primarily at an abandoned steel mill in Fontana, Calif., where rubble offered probably a few too many bricks to double accurately as a mostly combustible Japanese city of the 1940s. The smoke-streaked landscape, however, is so eerily desolate and chaotic you can almost feel the black rain fall.
Tamlyn Tomita, Stan Egi and Pat Morita take leading roles, with Egi particularly intriguing as a doctor probing the effects of the Americans' new weapon. Brady Tsurutani and Nathan Nishiguchi star as two schoolboys exploded from make-believe war to reality in the target area. If they and the rest of the Hiroshima population look a bit well fed to be starving before the bomb, they at least talk a lot about hunger, and special-effects makeup artist Todd Masters makes you forget about food anyway once the Enola Gay delivers its cargo. Even Masters, though, deals in understatement. Working from graphic portraits of bomb victims taken at the time, he has sculpted his rubber radiation burns and peeling skin with unforgettable effect. There's not a lot of screaming after the bomb. The most chilling experience is the pervading silence and a shuffling, charred form whispering for water.
It's probably too much to hope, given America's determined collective amnesia these days about its own history, that television will ever depict comparable World War II horrors like Dresden or Nanking to remind us that conventional weapons killed far more innocent people just as dreadfully and with far less justification than any atomic bomb -- and still do. But if it ever does, may it take "Hiroshima: Out of the Ashes" as a model.
Present as a technical adviser throughout the film was a woman named Kaz Suyeishi, who witnessed the Hiroshima bomb and its aftermath as a girl in Japan. She worked with a sense of mission and one self-punishing rule: If it didn't make her weep, they shot the scene again.