To Describe the Limits

What is memory worth? That’s the question asked by the documentary Paper City (2021; streaming on Kanopy). When it comes to horrible events, in this case the 1945 American firebombing of Tokyo, what if people do not want to remember? The documentary follows three survivors in particular, as they try to get recognition for both those killed, as well as the families of those who survived. In the 70 years (at the time of filming) since the bombing, the Japanese government gave 40 trillion yen (roughly $287 billion) to WWII soldiers and their families, but nothing to those who survived the bombing. According to the survivors, as well as footage from a sort of war PSA, the imperial government forbade people from fleeing the bombing. Instead, they were supposed to stay and fight the fires, and practiced doing so beforehand.

The subjects of the documentary say that younger people do not even know about the bombing or the fires that consumed large sections of Tokyo, killing more than 100,000 people. Over 18 months or so, we watch these elderly survivors, some of the very few left, recall where they used to live and the routes they took to escape the fires; they remember family members killed; they try to educate people, find and keep track of those who died, and try to have legislation passed for memorials and acknowledgment of those who survived. Only in 2016 did the Japanese Prime Minister first attend the annual day of remembrance.  

As Oppenheimer fills theaters, it is interesting to hear from Japanese survivors of the firebombing, which killed nearly as many people as both atomic bombs dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki. Even so, they blame their own government for not surrendering earlier and preventing the extreme loss of life. Later, during a small demonstration, a van drives by and through a loudspeaker, tells the silent demonstrators that they should be protesting at the U.S. Embassy, because the Americans were responsible for the bombing.  

Paper City is not primarily a film about the bombing, however. It is a film about remembering, and what is lost when people forget the history of the places where they live. In an essay from 1974 called “Damage,” Wendell Berry writes, “After the stone axe we needed song and story to remember innocence, to record effect—and so to describe the limits, to say what can be done without damage” (The World-Ending Fire, 101). Tools are used, and used in war, to specific effect. What should we say about them after the fact—70 or more years after the fact? What is lost if people do not remember? Is it only that those who do not remember their history are doomed to repeat it? Or is it only for the sake of the veneration of ancestors, that the names and graves are kept? Berry’s phrase gives us a hint: “to describe the limits, to say what can be done without damage.”   We cannot re-litigate what should or should not have been done. The damage was done, regardless of what anyone might say now, at this far remove from the actual events. There is, for example (inspired by the release of Oppenheimer) disagreement about whether the Japanese were ready to surrender, what might have happened if the atomic bombs had not been dropped, etc. But the survivors of the firebombing are more interested in something else: acknowledgment and remembrance. In this way, the limits can be described, and that description might allow people to say what can and should be done without damage. More than once in the film, the survivors say that their goal is to bring an end to all war (significantly, this is repeated in Oppenheimer as well). Whatever the damage, and it is unimaginable to us who did not live through it, the people who are the focus of Paper City can describe clearly the limits of what has happened, and so perhaps prescribe future limits to the various tools of war we have at our disposal.