IN TOUCH - Half-Life

Fiona Amundsen and Hiroshi Nakatsuji's work Half-Life explores the impact of the dropping of nuclear bombs on the cities of Nagasaki and Hiroshima through the Japanese storytelling technique of rakugo and the concept of zanshin, which forms the basis of the martial art aikido. Half-Life was funded through the Foundation's IN TOUCH arts commissions.

Watch Fiona and Hiroshi's work Half-Life

What is the video about? What story does it tell?

Fiona and Hiroshi: Half-life is an experimental documentary that explores how to remember the WWII atomic bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. 

While the Japanese and American Imperial war contexts that resulted in the bombings are long over, their impact remains present via those who survived and live the remnants of this history, as well as present-day nuclear-armed states. Half-life connects with this history as a means of exploring transformative methods for socio-ethical remembering. 

Half-life comprises two interconnected parts that are visually linked via American military produced footage of the bomb’s effects on Hiroshima and Nagasaki.  The first, titled ‘Noppera-bō’, is based on a Japanese folktale of a shapeshifting ghost that looks human, but has no face. 

As the rakugo performer (Kanariya Eishi, which is Hiroshi’s rakugo name) tells of the horrors of encountering Noppera-bō,  close-up footage of the effects of the bomb’s radiant heat and light—known as ‘flash-burns’—are shown. 

This footage documents the permanent shadows that were created by objects and bodies who were exposed to the bomb’s intense flash and high temperatures.  This imagery and the story of the faceless shapeshifting ghost-human is suggestive of the invisible radiation that poisoned the people, animals, lands and infrastructure of both cities. 

These relationships between facelessness, invisibility and visibility are further explored in the film’s second part titled  ‘An Ordinary Life’.  This time, Eishi performs a dialogue between himself and his now dead grandfather who was a young man in the Imperial Japanese Army.  They talk about the time that has passed since he died, the afterlife, judo, learning to use chopsticks, Eishi’s decision to study in America, the grandfather’s memories and experiences of the atomic bomb, and his desire to live an ordinary life.  

How did the idea emerge for this work? And how was it developed?

Fiona and Hiroshi: The ideas for the work emerged out of our shared dialogues, and commitment to working with histories of nuclear warfare.  Although the work was literally filmed over several sessions, it was developed by listening to each other’s practices (rakugo for Hiroshi and for Fiona filmmaking, as well as aikido), talking about ways in which we could bring these together via the story being performed, and then the ways it is filmed and edited.

Is there an autobiographical element to the story?

Hiroshi: Literally everything in the conversation with my grandfather is autobiographical. He did lose his father and siblings in Nagasaki on 9 August 1945, and his youngest brother, who is still alive, is a hibakusha (a survivor of the bombing). 

My grandfather entered Nagasaki to find his family right after the bombing, witnessing the destruction of Nagasaki and was also exposed to radiation. 

He taught me how to use chopsticks in a rather disciplinarian way, and told me directly to be a bridge or a peacemaker (though it is fictional that he attempted to rhyme with chopsticks (hashi) and bridge (hashi) ).  My mother did throw out all my grandfather's journals, which caused a little conflict between us!

Can you briefly explain the practices of rakugo and aikido – and why you chose to use them as a means to tell this story?

Hiroshi: Rakugo is a Japanese traditional art of comedic storytelling with a history of roughly 400 years.  All the characters are acted out by a single performer, making it rather like a situation comedy performed solo. 

Though it is primarily a comedic expression, its themes vary broadly and include genres such as ghost stories, tragedies, sci fi, and even love stories. 

I chose rakugo to tell this story as I dedicate my life to this art, and I simply could not think of any other way to honour my grandfather and his story.

Hiroshi kneeling on a mat wearing traditional Japanese clothing

Hiroshi: "I chose rakugo to tell this story as I dedicate my life to this art, and I simply could not think of any other way to honour my grandfather and his story."

Fiona: Aikido is a type of Japanese budō martial art that is based on working with conflict in non-combative ways.  The concept of zanshin is integral to aikido.  Zanshin translates as remaining mind, breath and body. 

The purpose of this is to practice a greater awareness of a technique just executed, or put differently, to develop an embodied consciousness with the continuity of a created and shared experience. 

As a practitioner of aikido, and a producer of filmic images, I have started to explore how zanshin is socio-politically and ethically relevant to the production and reception of lens-based images that negotiate the contemporary presence of historical colonial and imperial violence.  I’m interested in how zanshin may enable a stronger socio-politically and ethically embodied relationship to how the past informs a collective understanding of the present.

How is the dropping of nuclear bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki viewed in Japan (by most people) today? Is it taught at school?

Hiroshi: The tragedy of nuclear bombing is still remembered clearly and taught at school. 

However, I don't think that our experience of WWII is taught holistically at school, and what children learn often depends on the discretion of the teacher.  The war can not be fully understood unless we accept the fact that we were aggressors as well as victims.  I sincerely hope that the Japanese school system will teach the entire view on the war so that we will not repeat the same mistakes. 

Do you think the war and the dropping of bombs on the two cities continues to have a big impact on the psyche of Japanese people? 

Hiroshi: I wish I could say yes, but in reality it all depends on our choice that we make now.  Our ancestors' suffering had a big impact on the postwar Japanese psyche and made us seek peace after the war.  However, it is also true that some current leaders seem to want to revert back to our old ways that lead us to the tragedy of war, which was concluded by the dropping of bombs. 

It is one of my responsibilities as a family member of the Nagasaki victims to contribute to peace, no matter how small it may be, to make sure that we will not make the same mistakes.

What do you hope an audience will take away/learn/feel from watching this work?

Fiona and Hiroshi: A socio-ethical awareness of how the imperialist and nationalist thinking that resulted in the decision to develop nuclear weaponry lives on in the present.

About the Foundation's IN TOUCH arts commissions

Half-Life is one of ten digital art works to be produced through the Foundation's IN TOUCH arts commissions. The commissions were offered to New Zealand arts practitioners who had previously participated in Foundation programmes to develop new works suitable for digital channels and which draw on the artist’s ongoing connections to Asia.