The atomic bombing of Hiroshima in August 1945 has been etched into American history books, but only a small number of people today know the story of the 12 American soldiers languishing in a Japanese jail when the bomb dropped. Those 12 prisoners of war perished in the aftermath. While 10 of the POWs died that day, 2 lived for almost two weeks before succumbing to radiation poisoning.
Almost 40 years ago, now elderly Japanese historian Shigeaki Mori—an atomic bomb survivor himself—began painstakingly identifying the men and uncovering their stories. He spent decades trying to connect with the families of the POWs. The prisoners’ stories and Mori’s eventual meetings with family members are now the subject of a documentary codirected by filmmaker Max Esposito (CGS’08, COM’10). Titled Paper Lanterns, the film will be screened tomorrow night, May 30, at the Museum of Fine Arts Boston (MFA) and at the United Nations in New York City on Thursday.
The film’s name comes from the traditional Japanese ceremony Tōrō nagashi that is held in Hiroshima every year on the anniversary of the bombing, when paper lanterns are floated down the river in front of the Hiroshima Peace Museum, symbolizing the spirits of the dead departing to the spirit world.
Esposito and codirector Barry Frechette traveled to Japan to begin shooting the film in March 2015 and returned five months later for the 70th anniversary of the dropping of the atomic bomb. They first learned of the story from Frechette’s great-uncle, who knew Norman Brissette, one of the POWs. The film includes footage from President Barack Obama’s May 2016 visit to Hiroshima, when he became the first sitting president to visit the city and to honor Mori and his wife for their work on behalf of the American POWs.
Paper Lanterns was an official selection at the 2016 Hiroshima International Film Festival, the 2016 United Nations Association Film Festival, and the 2016 Independent Film Festival of Boston, among others.
BU Today spoke with Esposito—who works full-time for local film production company Sweet Ricky—about how he became involved in the project, his trips to Japan, and what he learned from interviewing Mori.
BU Today: The story of these 12 men was not well-known. How did you and Frechette learn about their plight?
Barry’s great-uncle was friends with one of the POWs decades ago and heard family stories. In 2013 or 2014, he came across a family scrapbook and that got him hooked. And he started figuring out who Mr. Mori was, and that was the beginning of everything.
At the time, I was a freelance filmmaker, and someone connected me with Barry, who is head of production at a Boston ad agency. We met and hit it off. He saw another project I did about a Vietnam veteran and liked the tone of it, so he asked me to join this new documentary he was working on. I didn’t know there were Americans killed by the atomic bomb, I didn’t know there were Americans in Hiroshima that were POWs.
How did you divide the work?
Barry found the story, and he produced. I was brought in as the cinematographer initially, and as it kept going on, we were having really in-depth conversations about what the story was. We filmed for these really long days in Japan, and he and I would go back to the bar at night and say, “What did we get? Where is this story taking us? What angle should we take tomorrow? Should we change things?” We started to develop a more creative collaboration and when we got back to the United States, we didn’t have an editor lined up, so I took it on. He and I knew the footage better than anyone. So I started out as cinematographer, then editor, then eventually codirector.
What was it like to work in Japan?
I had not been to Asia before, so that was neat. Everyone was so friendly and excited about the project. The film got a lot of buzz in Japan, and people started to film us filming Mr. Mori.
What kind of reaction do you get when you tell people about the story?
When we do our elevator pitch, we lead with the fact there were 12 American POWs in Hiroshima when the atomic bomb was dropped, because it’s an amazing fact that many people don’t know. We always make sure to follow it up with the story of the historian Mr. Mori, who is incredibly passionate and found it within himself to tell the story of these 12 American POWs, to get their names recognized by the Japanese government as official victims.
There is a neat interactive kiosk at the peace memorial in Hiroshima where you can look up people’s names, see a picture if they had one, as well as a small bio about them. That’s the official register of the victims of the bombing, and the 12 POWs are now in that registry thanks to the work of Mr. Mori.
Tell us about your relationship with Mr. Mori.
It was really interesting to work through that process with a translator, because Barry and I would think of the questions we would want to ask Mr. Mori, and we’d hear his long responses. We would need to let Mr. Mori go through his responses, which put a lot of pressure on the translator to remember a whole two-, three-, four-minute historical answer and spit that back to us. We had a sense of what he was saying while we were filming, but it wasn’t until we got the transcript that we found these neat little surprises. We didn’t realize he’d said it that way, or there were instances where he added a little tidbit of information.
What motivated Mr. Mori to spend so much of his life bringing the story of these 12 POWs to the attention of the public?
When you hear Mr. Mori speak without a translator, you can feel all this emotion. That was very present every time we saw him. He was so overcome by emotion about this work he was doing, and you could tell he had such a big heart and had so much compassion, and was able to forgive. He was so proud to walk us through Japan and show us all these places where the POWs had been and so proud of this history that he uncovered.
Mr. Mori is the kind of person who is able to see the bigger picture of humanity beyond the immediacy of World War II and what happened there. That’s the big thing we hope people take away from it, that here’s a guy who was eight years old, survived the atomic bomb, and he spent 40 years finding what happened to these soldiers from another country who were trying to destroy his country.
He’ll actually be at the MFA when we screen it tomorrow and when we screen it at the United Nations on Thursday.
Is this the first time Mr. Mori has visited the United States?
Yes. The film screened at the UN before during a convention on nuclear arms. It was used as an example of why we need arms reduction. Now to have Mr. Mori there in person, it will carry more weight. From what I understand, he has always wanted to come to the United States, but in his old age it was a question mark. We weren’t sure if it would ever happen. With Barry, myself, the film crew being based in Boston, and one of the POWs being from Lowell, Mass., the opportunity to bring Mr. Mori to Boston to see all of us, to see where Norman Brissette grew up, and then go to New York, it’s pretty amazing, especially for it to happen just after Memorial Day weekend. It’s powerful.
What kind of buzz is the film receiving? How have audiences responded?
The film has received a ton of buzz and press in Japan, especially when President Obama went there and honored Mr. Mori. As I said before, there were national and local film crews following us while we were shooting.
In the United States, it’s done fairly well on the film festival circuit. Every audience member that sees it is kind of taken on this emotional roller-coaster. There are times when I’ve seen the film with an audience in a theater and you can hear sniffles, you can feel this weight in the silence. People are emotionally reacting in a good way.
Paper Lanterns will screen at the Museum of Fine Arts, 465 Huntington Ave., Boston, tomorrow, Wednesday, May 30, at 7:30 pm. It will be followed by a discussion with codirectors Barry Frechette and Max Esposito, the families of the POWs, and the film’s subject, Shigeaki Mori. Tickets are $9 for MFA members, $11 for nonmembers, and can be purchased here.