This was not a film I could watch lightly. It was meaty and complex, and I had to figure a good deal out; most of the film is nothing but conversations between our leads, a pair of unnamed lovers who’ve met by chance in the city of Hiroshima, and several sequences illustrating some of the woman’s thoughts or memories, and that’s it. I was captivated enough to want to figure things out, however.
And some of the imagery is just plain gorgeous regardless. The opening sequence features shots of our leads embracing (lovemaking is implied, but not graphically depicted) as ash falls on their bodies, interspersed with recreations or still shots of newsreel footage from the aftermath of the U.S. nuclear attack on Hiroshima. All we hear is the couple’s voices – “She” (Emmanuelle Riva) speaks of all the things she saw in the attack on Hiroshima, or in the museum about the attacks, claiming she saw “Iron, burned and twisted…. a bouquet of bottle caps…photographs and reconstructions, for lack of anything else…” But “He” (Eiji Okada) keeps interrupting Her: “you didn’t see that.” “You never saw that.” “You saw nothing, you weren’t there.” And all the while, we flip from clips showing exactly what She is describing, to clips of their bare skin, Her fingers gripping His back and both sparkling with either sweat or radioactive ash.
Things do settle down and get a bit more linear after this, and gradually we learn that they’ve effectively just met for a hookup; She is a French actress in town shooting a film, which She only describes as “an international movie about peace”, while He is an architect who’d met Her in a bar the previous night. He wants to see Her again; but She is flying home to Paris the next day. Still, something about their encounter hit them both hard, so when He surprises Her on set that afternoon, after She’s wrapped, She leaves to spend Her final hours in Hiroshima with Him. And as their conversation grows more intimate, we learn just how impossible any future romance might be between them – both are married to other people, for one thing, but She is also carrying a very heavy burden of memory, the ghost of another romance from even earlier in Her past, during the Second World War. And Her tale, when we finally get the whole story – told painfully and piecemeal in several separate anecdotes throughout – is tragic and heartbreaking, but even more heartbreaking is how She has clearly been ruminating over it for several years, how it has shackled Her and kept Her from another genuine connection before this – and how that is partly Her own fault.
My biggest complaint, however, is that we don’t do as much of a deep dive into His past. He also suffered loss from the war, just as She did (I mean, He’s from Hiroshima, so that doesn’t come as that much of a surprise) – but He has made His peace with that pain. He is strong enough to consider fostering some kind of ongoing connection with Her, but ultimately realizes that She isn’t going to be able to do that. That’s a perfectly valid disconnect – hell, I can probably chalk a couple of my own breakups up to a similar dynamic. But the problem is that as far as the film goes, He is so at peace with His past that it barely comes up. The revelation of His own wartime tragedy is such a fleeting thing that I actually missed it; I even went back and re-watched a couple scenes after I read about that after the fact, in search of the moment where He told Her His story, but couldn’t find it. And I felt cheated, and I felt a bit like He was cheated as well – especially since this then means that this film, which ostensibly uses Hiroshima as a framing device, becomes the tale of a tragic love story from rural France instead.
It’s always possible He may not really be recovered after all. At the time of this film, it would have been about 14 years after the attack – He might very well be deliberately Not Thinking About Things as a coping mechanism because He’s not ready. I was an eyewitness to the 9/11 attacks, and there are some memories from that day which I know that I have deliberately pushed to the back of my mind all “nope, not gonna go there” – and His own losses in the Hiroshima attacks were several orders of magnitude more personal than what I faced that day. However, this is all speculation – there is simply not enough to go on in the film to suggest whether this might be the case, and that in itself is my complaint.
But like Him, I still want to dig down and know more about the both of them, and the strong connection They both enjoyed and the mammoth obstacles which are ultimately tearing them apart again.