Paper City

Australia (MIFF 2021)
Director: Adrian Francis

Three elderly survivors of the 1945 firebombing of Tokyo fight against bureaucracy and indifference to ensure that the event and its victims are not forgotten.

Just after midnight on 10 March 1945, the US launched an air-based attack on eastern Tokyo; continuing until morning, the raid left more than 100,000 people dead and a quarter of the city eradicated. Unlike their loved ones, Hiroshi Hoshino, Michiko Kiyooka and Minoru Tsukiyama managed to emerge from the bombings. Now in their twilight years, they wish for nothing more than recognition and reparations for those who, like them, had been indelibly harmed by the war – but the Japanese government and even their fellow citizens seem disinclined to acknowledge the past.

Supported by the MIFF Premiere Fund, the feature debut of MIFF Accelerator Lab alumnus Adrian Francis (Lessons from the Night, MIFF 2009) is a poignant exploration of trauma, remembrance and the State’s role in gatekeeping accounts of history. Anchored around the 70th anniversary of the bombing, the largely observational documentary interweaves free-flowing, harrowing testimonies with chronicles of modern-day advocacy, revealing Hoshino, Kiyooka and Tsukiyama as charismatic community leaders standing up to widespread cultural forgetting. Produced by Melanie Brunt with executive producers Sophie Hyde (52 Tuesdays) and Rebecca Summerton (Animals), Paper City asks: what is our duty to the dead, and how do we reconcile mourning with moving forward?


Paper City – Q&A with Director Adrian Francis

  • Paper City observes three elderly survivors of the 1945 firebombing of Tokyo. How did you first arrive at this event as a subject for your documentary? And how did you find these three survivors?

    When I first lived in Tokyo twenty years ago, I didn’t really know anything about the firebombing — and certainly not that it was the most destructive air raid in history. Then I saw the Errol Morris documentary Fog of War, which had a short sequence about the March 10 bombing of Tokyo. That really struck me: in a single night time attack,100,000 people were killed and at least a quarter of the city was destroyed. This was a war crime by anyone’s measure. After the shock of these numbers, I began to think a bit more. Where were the memorials to this in Tokyo? Why didn’t it seem to occupy more space in the collective consciousness of the city? Who were the survivors? Were they reluctant to talk? Would they rather forget?

    I began to do some research and found a small private museum dedicated to the air raids. I also contacted a survivors’ group, which for years had been campaigning for the building of a memorial and peace museum, as well as reparations for what they had lost. The thing that struck me was that these people were so compelled to memorialize the attacks and their losses — their families and friends, their homes, their livelihoods. Their problem is that few people are listening. So they were very open to sharing their stories with me.

  • The human desire to be remembered is a prominent theme. Do you see a connection between the act of memory making as depicted in the film and your role as filmmaker/documentarian? Given these people were at the very latter stages of their life journey, did you feel a special responsibility towards them and how was this reconciled with objectivity?

    Absolutely. Essentially what these survivors have been doing for decades is telling their stories in whatever way they could manage — whether through testimonies, interviews, books, paintings, or protests. They just want to leave behind an imprint on the public memory that will outlast their own lives. I think that desire to leave something behind resonates very strongly with me as a filmmaker, but is fundamental to all of us — to be heard, to be known, to be remembered. I think the great fear of the survivors in our film is that if they don’t pass their stories on, the firebombing will soon slip from public memory – effectively as if it never happened.

    This is why we wanted to tell the story exclusively from the point of view of civilians who were on the ground that night — a point of view which is missing from most discussion of the air raids. Even now when the firebombing is discussed in the west, it’s often through a lens of US military strategy. Malcolm Gladwell’s recent Bomber Mafia doesn’t stray too far from this line either — the story of the firebombing is framed in terms of military politics and the struggles between powerful generals. The 100,000 dead are not much more than a footnote in this version. So our film has never been concerned with objectivity. We just want people to think about another strand of this story.

  • The film features some amazing – and rarely seen – archive footage; can you tell us about sourcing this footage and its role in your film?

    We thought early on that we couldn’t feature archive in the film because virtually no footage exists of that night. Very few civilians had cameras, and during the attack itself, they were literally running for their lives. But our historical consultant and executive producer, Professor David Fedman, came across some footage of Tokyo burning below, which was shot from US B-29s. We believe this is the only footage that exists of that night.

    In the editing, we began to realize that we wanted something to help illuminate our survivor’s stories. We sourced some incredible footage from the Japanese public broadcaster NHK, which has a huge library of wartime and post-war newsreel footage. It really provides a window into the suffering of civilians, and the way Japanese wartime propaganda was priming people to sacrifice their own lives for the sake of the nation. We also use some US wartime propaganda footage in the film’s prologue, which shows how the attacks on Japan were framed to the US public at the time. I think this archive really sets up how civilians were at the mercy of these two powerful governments.

  • Can you tell us a bit about your experience of living for an extended time in Tokyo making such a culturally-specific and, for the subjects, a deeply personal film. What cross-cultural issues did you encounter and what do you see as a filmmaker’s special responsibilities here?

    I remember joking with our Australian Director of Photography Brett Ludeman, that I didn’t want any cherry blossoms in the film. I just wanted to avoid all the clichés about Japan that western media inevitably goes for — you can see this in a lot of the Olympic coverage. In the end, it happened naturally, because all the things that seduce visitors are just part of the fabric of the place I live in. I don’t notice them anymore. That said, I think one cherry blossom shot snuck in.

    The biggest issues for me were working within the limits of my modest Japanese language ability, particularly while we were shooting. I’m not so used to speaking to elderly people, and the language of wartime can sometimes be difficult even for younger Japanese to understand. Looking back at our footage, there were times when I realized I didn’t fully grasp what was being said to me at the time —and that I missed opportunities to follow-up with a question.

    The other challenge was conveying our intentions to the three survivors featured in the film, who were all in their 80s and 90s when we shot. While they are used to short interviews with news crews for the anniversary of the firebombing, it was harder for them to understand a more observational approach, coming back again and again to shoot over a year and a half. I’m sure they got a little frustrated with me at times, but they were always gracious and open.

  • In the context of a still conflict-ridden world, what would you like audiences to take-away from your film?

    The bombing of cities in World War II was the blueprint for how conflicts are often played out now. Air warfare — including drone strikes — allows the attacker to inflict maximum damage to the enemy while minimizing the loss of life on their own side. This efficiency makes it easier for governments to justify attacks to their own people. In the days when large numbers of Australian troops were on the ground and dying in wars, the pushback from the public was much stronger. Now we barely notice or remember because we don’t pay a price. The people on the receiving end, however, never forget. The psychological scars remain long after the physical ones have healed.

    We’ve recorded the stories of survivors in our film, but it’s only a beginning in a way. In a handful of years, there will be no living survivors of these attacks. But if people watch our film and have conversations with those around them, they become part of this transfer of memory — so what happened to these civilians on March 10, 1945 isn’t forgotten.