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New Film Explores U.S. Suppression of Key Footage from Hiroshima & Nagasaki via the Asia-Pacific Journal Japan Focus

Greg Mitchell

Elite Japanese and American film teams shot the most important and disturbing film, including rare color images, in the aftermath of the atomic bombings. Then it was buried by U.S. authorities for decades as the nuclear arms race raged.

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But one day in June 1982, I took notice when the Japan Society in New York announced it would screen the first movie drawing on footage shot in vivid color in Hiroshima and Nagasaki by an elite American military team, then suppressed for decades by the U.S. government. One of the U.S. Army officers who was part of that team would discuss the film and its suppression for the first time. I was a member of the Japan Society–they had even arranged my recent interview with film director Akira Kurosawa–and always loved a good “cover-up.” So I attended the event a few days later.

The film, produced in Japan, was called Prophecy. Someone connected with it introduced former Army lieutenant Herbert Sussan, who went on to a long career as a producer/director in the emerging television industry. He described being recruited near the end of 1945 from the Army’s famous wartime film studio in Hollywood (where he had met Ronald Reagan, among others) to join a major U.S. Strategic Bombing Survey project to shoot the first and only color footage documenting the destruction of Japanese cities from the air during the war. It seemed to offer a free, triumphant, trip for the young man until the crew arrived by train at their first stop: Nagasaki. He would be haunted by what he saw there, and then in Hiroshima, for the rest of his life.

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When he returned to New York after filming in numerous other bomb-ravaged Japanese cities, Sussan was determined to show the world what he had experienced, hoping that this might halt the building of new and bigger weapons and prevent a dangerous nuclear arms race with the Russians.

Instead, he found that all of the footage had been classified top secret and buried by the U.S. military. Some of it would eventually be used in training films, but none of it was shown to the public. The color images were just too revealing not only of unfathomable destruction of buildings, but above all the long-lasting damage to human bodies.

Seized at the same time by the U.S. and hidden for the next quarter of a century was all of the searing black and white footage shot earlier by the leading Japanese newsreel company, Nippon Eiga Sha

Sussan tried for twenty years to find and make use of his footage–Americans still had not been exposed to color images of any kind from Hiroshima and Nagasaki–but he got nowhere, even after personally approaching everyone from famed newsman Edward R. Murrow to former President Harry S. Truman. 

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Finally, he would, almost by accident, play a central role in the footage becoming known to the world. Around 1979 he attended an exhibit of photos from the atomic cities at the United Nations near his apartment. To his dismay, he spotted several color enlargements of frames from the footage his team had shot in 1946.. He said to a Japanese man, Iwakura Tsotumu, who had helped arrange the exhibit, something to the effect, “I shot the footage this photo is taken from.”

Imagine Iwakura’s surprise. Iwakura did some digging at the National Archives in Washington and discovered that the color footage had been declassified, very quietly, a few years earlier. If no one knew about this, it was just the same as still being classified.

Iwakura went back to Japan and launched what became known as the “10 Feet Movement,” a grassroots project that encouraged people (including school kids) to raise and contribute funds to buy back copies of all of the color footage in increments of ten feet. When they reached their goal in 1980, he made the footage available to Japanese filmmakers, who soon completed two documentaries, with more in the works.

The creators of the film that I saw, Prophecy, directed by Hani Susumi, were able to track down some of the survivors shown in the 1946 footage and then contrast the badly-scarred images of them in 1946 with images from interviews with them from the early 1980s. Soon Americans started making use of the color footage–although only in brief passages–in their own films.

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