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Australian Filmmaker Brings New Light to Tokyo Firebombing in a Harrowing Documentary

"The line between life and death is paper thin," says one of the survivors, as she recounts surviving the heat and flames of the Tokyo firebombing.



In the last months of World War II, the United States armed forces carried out one of the deadliest air raids of the conflict. In just two hours an estimated 100,000 people lost their lives. It came to be known as the Tokyo firebombing. 

Yet, the memory of this event seems to be fading. Local governments never funded a museum to memorialize the deadly event. And few people from abroad are aware of this history, flocking instead to learn about the atomic bomb attacks of Hiroshima or Nagasaki. 

In Japan, too, there is little awareness of the dynamics of this history, how many people died, or what happened to those who survived.  

Should this moment in history be allowed to fade away? Australian film director Adrian Francis set out to find out in his first feature film called "Paper City" (world premiere in 2021). He documents the stories of Tokyo's firebombing survivors and the struggle to leave a record of their experiences behind.

To learn more, JAPAN Forward sat down with the director for an interview as the film was poised to begin its first Japanese roadshow. 

Director Adrian Francis while he is filming a scene (© Adrian Francis)

First, Asking Why

Adrian Francis first found out about the Tokyo firebombing after watching the documentary "The Fog of War" (2003), directed by Errol Morris. 

He recounts being shocked by the story. "I'd already been living in Tokyo for a few years at that stage, but I didn't really know anything about the firebombing." It was through this film that the details of the events became clear to him. 

On the night of March 10, 1945, firebombs were dropped on Tokyo for over two and a half hours. Some 100,000 people died. One quarter of the city was destroyed. And an estimated one million people were made homeless. "People went to bed at night, then they woke up between four walls of fire," highlights the filmmaker. 


Despite the horror, Mr Francis noticed that very little trace seems to remain of the bombings in the modern city. While in New York there is a memorial for the victims of 9.11, and in London there are monuments to remember the blitz, he couldn't find comparable examples in Tokyo. 

"I couldn't understand," he said. "Japanese civilians were victims of enemy attacks. Why wouldn't they be memorialized in their own land?,"  Francis asked himself. 

Archive pictures of World War II in Japan (© Adrian Francis)

Following The Protagonists

He was determined to shed light on the events. In the film, the director documents the stories of three survivors of the Tokyo firebombing: Minoru Tsukiyama, Michiko Kiyooka, and Hiroshi Hoshino. They were 16, 21, and 14, respectively, in 1945. 

Recounting their stories through the camera lens, the survivors retrace their footsteps on that night of the Tokyo firebombing. And they convey how they and their families were affected by the events that followed. 

Michiko Kiyooka was 21 at the time of the Tokyo firebombing (© Adrian Francis)

Many survivors lost family members in the air raid. They either died in the flames or drowned in the Onagi river as they tried to escape. A particularly harrowing moment in the documentary shows Kiyooka recounting the long night that spent in the freezing waters of the river, dousing herself to avoid being burned in the heat and flames of the surrounding fire. 

The trauma continued after the disaster as well. Hirano recounts how civilians were made to help in the effort to collect and bury the dead bodies in the aftermath of the bombing. 

As Kiyooka says in the film, almost as if referencing the title of the documentary, she learned that "the line between life and death is paper thin." 

Hiroshi Hirano shows around Kinshi park, where civilians were made to bury the dead bodies after the Tokyo firebombing (© Adrian Francis)

Three Memories of the Tokyo Firebombing

Francis follows three protagonists and their activism as they seek to make sure the history of the Tokyo firebombing is remembered. He focuses on the period between 2015 and 2016, which corresponds to the 70th and 71st anniversary of the end of World War II, respectively. 

All three protagonists bring their own elements to the story. 

Tsukiyama is part of the local community known as Morishita, an area close to the sumo stadium in Ryogoku. He was an integral part of documenting the names of the locals there who lost their lives in the firebombing. In 2016, the community unveiled a monument engraved with all of the names of Morishita residents who died that night. 

Minoru Tsukiyama was part of the Morishita local community, and fought to collect the names of all the locals who lost their lives in the Tokyo firebombing (© Adrian Francis)

Hirano came from a residential area close to the river, not too far from Tokyo bay. In later life, he became more of a political activist. He is among the most vocal proponents of collecting signatures to have a memorial that would remember all victims of the bombing. 

Kiyooka lived in Asakusa. And to save herself she descended from the Kototoi bridge into the river below. Now, she is involved in passing the memory to the younger generation. In the documentary, she is shown meeting Francis for the first time and telling the director: "If we don't pass this on while we're alive, young people will never know. It's my duty to tell them."

Minoru Tsukiyama fought to collect the names of all the locals who lost their lives in the Tokyo firebombing (© Adrian Francis)

What We Aim to Forget…

The film is beautiful to watch. There is subtle imagery, such as a blurry scene of a firework display. It is imagery taken from the way many survivors recount the bombs dropping from the sky as almost resembling fireworks. Viewers are brought into intimate moments in the protagonists' lives, as if getting to know them. 

One such moment is when Tsukiyama delivers a speech on the 71st anniversary of the end of the war. Recalling the events of the firebombing, his voice starts to crack. As Francis explains it, "With the slightest trigger, they are transported right back into the middle of the trauma." 

Yet, despite the gravity of the historical events, what emerges from the film is how few avenues there are through which people today can find out about the bombing. 

After years of silence after World War II, starting from the 1960s, survivors of the firebombing began campaigning for a public venue for remembering the history of the firebombings. 

Archive pictures of World War II in Japan (© Adrian Francis)

Official Avoidance Sparks Private Effort 

There is no publicly funded stand-alone memorial or museum. Let alone, some survivors lament, an accurate body count of those who lost their lives. 

It is the Center of the Tokyo Raid and War Damages, a privately financed structure, which is currently the main institution preserving the history of the firebombing. 

Efforts to collect artifacts and testimonies of more than 300 survivors fell flat when the Tokyo Metropolitan Government scrapped its plan in 1999. "Items that were donated in good faith have just been sitting in a warehouse somewhere for two decades," explains Francis. 

The only memorial to commemorate the victims of the firebombing is one near Tokyo's Ryogoku district. It is in a building initially dedicated to the victims of the Great Kanto Earthquake of 1923. Later, the remains of those who died in the firebombings were dug up and laid to rest in the same place. And the name was changed to "Tokyo Memorial Hall." The documentary shows how the remains of firebombing victims are tucked in a corner, almost as an afterthought. 

Michiko Kiyooka saw it as her duty to pass on the memory of the Tokyo firebombing to young people (© Adrian Francis)

Ultimately, therefore, survivors are asking for government accountability. They feel that, despite the civilians being at the front lines of this battle scene from World War II, their stories aren't being told. "I think that is what hurts: many survivors feel they are being dismissed," says Francis. 

…What We Choose to Remember

The documentary culminates with the presentation of a petition containing more than 300,000 signatures to members of Japan's parliament, the National Diet. Presenting the petition, a group of survivors asks Japanese politicians to build a memorial and establish a place where those who remember the war and future generations can pay their respects. 

Time is running out, however. Since the start of filming in 2015, all three protagonists of the documentary have passed away. Their deaths are an ominous warning of the inexorable passage of time and lost knowledge that accompanies it. 


Francis therefore hopes that his documentary can be an opportunity for people to start a conversation about how to preserve those memories and others that have not yet been lost. "I want people to understand what happened, and see the ongoing struggle to leave behind something to learn from the past," he explained. 

Michiko Kiyooka looks upon the river, where she escaped on the night of the Tokyo firebomb. (© Adrian Francis)

Quickly the film established a reputation and won several awards. Among them, it took home the audience award from the Tokyo Documentary Film Festival and the Best Documentary in the History category at the 40th ATOM Awards

Nearly all of the lives lost in the firebombing were ordinary civilians. Speaking about them, the filmmaker draws a parallel with wars everywhere. "Citizens always get co-opted and dragged into something not of their own choosing," he laments. 

"In order for that not to be the case, we need to know. We need to remember. We need to learn from what happened before."  

Information about Screenings in Japan: 

Tokyo — Theatre Image Forum (Shibuya): From February 25, Daily screenings at 13:00-14:30, 15:00-16:30, 16:45-18:15, 18:45-20:15)

Osaka — Dainana Geijustu Gekijou: From March 11

Nagoya — Cinemark: From April 1

Nagano — Ueda Eigeki (Ueda City): From April 1

Find more information on the film. 



Author: Arielle Busetto

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