A Conversation with Director Adrian Francis

Im Gespräch 24. Mai 2022

About his Feature Film "Papercity" and the Firebombing of Tokyo in World War 2 ...

In 1945, the US firebombed Tokyo, destroying a quarter of the city and killing 100,000 people. Now, in a society rapidly forgetting, three elderly survivors fight to leave behind a public record of their experiences before they pass away. Paper City explores what we choose to remember, and aim to forget—and what the consequences of that are.

Not long ago the documentary "Paper City" had its inofficial premiere in Tokyo for donors, friends and the media. Here we had a chance to talk to Australian Director Adrian Francis about his moving, shocking but also couragous and inspiring film, a conversation in which he explains in detail what has moved and inspired him, what happend throughout the shooting of the documentary and especially about the protagonists of the true story, three survivors of a devastating and horrifying night in Tokyo during World War 2, in which they lost everyone the cared about and everything in their lives.

What inspired you to create a documentary about this specific topic and issue in the first place?

Like many Australians of my generation, I grew up with stories of the cruelty suffered by allied civilians and POWs at the hands of the Japanese military. But apart from Hiroshima and Nagasaki, I was taught nothing about how Japanese civilians experienced the war. This changed when I saw the Errol Morris’ documentary, Fog of War, which in one sequence shows the extent of the destruction in Tokyo. In a 2.5-hour air raid, the US dropped 1500 tonnes of incendiary bombs on the sleeping civilians below. By morning a quarter of the city was destroyed and 100,000 people were dead—the most destructive air raid in history. By any measure, a war crime. And yet it is rarely spoken in Japan or abroad. Even as a Tokyo resident of several years, I’d seen very few physical traces remaining in Tokyo itself. Why is Tokyo so missing from our collective memory of World War Two?

At first I began to wonder about the survivors. Were they still alive? Did they want to talk? Would they prefer to forget? I began the film because I wanted answers to these questions.

How did you proceeded afterwards, how did you emerged yourself deeper into the topic, how did you met and convinced the main protagonists to participate in the film? Was it difficult?

I began to do some background reading on the Tokyo firebombing, and more broadly about the bombing of cities in warfare. Although there has been more published in English over the last few years, at the time, there was very little available online.

Through my Japanese research, I found a small private museum in Tokyo dedicated to the air raids, the Center of the Tokyo Air Raids & War Damage. I also contacted a survivors’ group, which for years had been campaigning for the building of a memorial and peace museum, as well as reparations for what civilians had lost. The thing that struck me was that these people were so compelled to memorialize the attacks and talk about their losses—their families and friends, their homes, their livelihoods. Their problem is that few people have been willing to listen.

I was a little anxious that survivors would be wary of talking to a descendant of their wartime “enemy” but nothing could’ve been further from the truth. I feel humbled that three survivors in particular were willing to entrust their stories to me. Mrs Kiyooka, one of the main protagonists in the film often commented that sometimes it’s easier for an outsider—rather than a Japanese filmmaker—to look more directly at the complex legacy of the war.

How long did it take you from the first idea to completion?

All up, we worked on it over a period of seven years, from 2014 to 2021.

What made the process of creation take such a long time? Was it intentional or a biproduct of the work?

It certainly wasn’t our intention to spend so much time. Naively, at the beginning I assumed it might only take a couple of years to complete it. We started research and developing the idea in 2014. The principal shooting was through 2015 and 2016, after which we shifted our focus to raising post-production funds. Then we spent perhaps a year in editing, and then a couple of months working with sound and music until the film was completed in June 2021.

Financing was perhaps the biggest challenge of all—particularly because this was the first feature film for both my producer and I. In the end, we were very grateful to Screen Australia and Melbourne International Film Festival’s Premiere Fund for coming aboard. With crowd funding through Japanese site Campfire and some private investment, we were able to complete fundraising.

What were the difficulties on the path of finishing the documentary or along the way?

One of the biggest issues for me was working within the limits of my modest Japanese language ability, particularly while we were shooting. I’m not so used to speaking to elderly people, and the language of wartime can sometimes be difficult even for younger Japanese to understand. Looking back at our footage, there were times when I didn’t fully grasp what was being said to me at the time – and I missed opportunities to follow-up with a question.

The other challenge was conveying our intentions to the three survivors featured in the film, who were all in their 80s and 90s when we shot. While they were used to short interviews with news media for the anniversary of the firebombing, it was harder for them to understand our more observational approach, coming back again and again to shoot over a year and a half. I’m sure they got a little frustrated with me at times, but they were always gracious and open.

The editing was immensely challenging. We had assembled around 45 hours of footage. First, we knew we had a responsibility to the three survivors, to convey their testimonies and their emotional journeys. We also had to make clear to the audience the history and complexity of the survivors’ post-war campaign for recognition. And, we were making a film about memory in which the action happens in the present day. It took a lot of work to balance these elements in a way that would be cohesive and compelling for an audience.

What has surprised or shocked you the most during the shooting?

It wasn’t so much in the filming itself, but in the reaction of people when I told them I was making a film about the “firebombing of Tokyo.” When many people heard me say this, their response was often: “Ah, Hiroshima!” As if they could not even conceive that Tokyo had been bombed. The firebombing was not even in their consciousness.

Because there is not so much meaningful discussion about the meaning and legacy of the war in Japan, there is a huge gap between how the left and right view it. As an example of this polarization:

One day we were shooting at a very quiet roadside rally outside the Japanese parliament complex: some firebombing survivors had gathered to present a petition to lawmakers. As they were listening to a speaker, a black right-wing truck drove by. You see these trucks from time to time in Tokyo—especially on important wartime anniversaries. This day was the anniversary of the bombing of Pearl Harbor. The survivors had chosen this day—the beginning of the Pacific War—to highlight how the Japanese government’s belligerence had eventually led to the US bombing of Tokyo and 66 other Japanese cities. As the black truck drove by, the driver screamed out another message to the elderly survivors—berating them for protesting against their own government: they should be at the US embassy, protesting against US war crimes!

What on the other hand did surprise you positively?

On a personal note, I’d been thinking about the subject of the firebombing for a while but I think the subject matter really began to stick after a year of emotional turmoil—when my dad passed away and I broke up with partner. A lot of themes of the film became very urgent for me then: loss, grief, memory, legacy, and the meaning we give to our lives. These were all things I saw playing out in the experiences of the firebombing survivors. Perhaps that was what connected me to these people who on the surface share little in common—much older, and who grew up with a different language, and in a different world to the one I did. I was very moved by their resilience, humility, and unbending optimism in the face of government and public indifference. There’s a moment in the film when I ask one of the protagonists, Mr Hoshino, what he’ll do if the survivors’ campaign fails, and he replies that they’ll try again and again. Even at 85, he was still hopeful—as if his life depended on it.

Was there a time you felt overwhelmed by everything or a certain issue or moved, so that it made things difficult for you?

I think the images that have stayed with me are the faces of our subjects when they fall into silence. All three of them have told their stories again and again over the years, but there are still moments when certain scenes from that night play themselves out in their minds and words fail them—because there’s really nothing they can say to make sense of what happened.

These are people who have mourned the death of loved ones and communities, and who have rebuilt their lives from the ashes of a destroyed city. They are not sentimental people. But in these moments of silence, you can see their pain and also their will and strength to survive.

During the time you accompanied the protagonists in their quest for recognition, were there successes or defeats?

Over the period we shot together, there were setbacks in their quest for recognition, but the survivors were unfazed. The civilian campaign for various forms of recognition goes back to the 1960s. Over that time, their activism has taken many turns—rallies, speeches, petitions and so on—and with each setback, they look for a new way to get their message across.

As an example, several years before we began filming, some survivors launched a class action lawsuit against the Japanese government. They hoped to push the government to give some kind of token compensation to civilian survivors who lost everything in the air raids. In contrast to former soldiers and their families, who have been treated generously by the state, civilians have received nothing. In the end, the survivors lost their case against the government—but in its ruling, the court said that there is no basis for the unequal treatment of civilians, and that the government itself should address this issue. Since this ruling, the survivors have poured their energy into getting a bill passed in parliament. Of course, now so long after the war the issue is not really about money at all—but an attempt to have the government accept responsibility for beginning a war and sacrificing its own citizens in pursuit of Imperialist ambitions.

But with many survivors in their 80s and 90s, they have come up against the limitations of age and their relatively small sphere of influence.  I think this is where our film can help in some modest way—to bring the story of the Tokyo firebombing to audiences beyond Japan.

Since the first idea until the completion of the film, how did your thoughts or perception of the whole topic changed, if it changed or how do you feel about it now, after so many years of having had a deep insight into the issues?

I think the images that have stayed with me are the faces of our subjects when they fall into silence. All three of them have told their stories again and again over the years, but there are still moments when certain scenes from that night play themselves out in their minds and words fail them—because there’s really nothing they can say to make sense of what happened.

I think what’s been most instructive for me is how limited a view we have of war when think about it simply as nation versus nation, or us against them. Why can’t we look back at things after seven decades with a little bit of nuance? Why do we have to tell ourselves such simple stories about the past?

Our film tells things completely from the point of view of Japanese civilians, but it’s certainly not a defence of Japanese militarism. In fact, the survivors’ experiences offer a strong critique of militarism on both sides in the war. In the end, no matter whether they are on the side of aggressor or the victim, civilians bear the brunt of decisions made by governments and militaries. It’s true of the civilian victims of Japanese Imperialism in China, Korea and other places. It’s equally true of the victims of the US bombing across Japan. This is why I opened the film with a quote from Milan Kundera’s novel, “The Book of Laughter and Forgetting”:

The struggle of man against power is the struggle of memory against forgetting.”

What do you take out of the work on the documentary for yourself, as a human being, what have you learned, how did it changed you, if it changed you?

The survivors just want to leave behind an imprint on the public memory that will outlast their own lives. I think that desire to leave something behind resonates very strongly with me as a filmmaker, but is fundamental to all of us—to be heard, to be known, to be remembered. I think the great fear of the survivors in Paper City is that if they don't pass their stories on, the firebombing will soon slip from public memory—effectively as if it never happened.

When I started this project, I guess I saw it as a film about the past. But now I see it as Orwell did in 1984—he who controls the past, controls the future. If the firebombing of Tokyo fades from our collective memory, then it’s as if it never happened. And if effectively never happened, then the perpetrators are absolved of responsibility, and the public are more easily manipulated in their understanding of history—and more likely to blindly follow what they’re told.

What are your hopes for the documentary, what would you like to achieve with it and for the issue and survivors, how does it all continue?

We would like to reach as broad an audience as we can—both inside Japan and abroad.

One of the central themes of Paper City is the ways that we record and pass on memory. This continues with audience members themselves, who in viewing the film become “witnesses” to the stories of survivors—and can become part of the chain of transferring memory to the people around them, and to generations beyond.

I realize that there is a desire in Japan to talk about these things, but it can often be difficult to start the discussion. I would be very happy if this film could help to start a dialogue across generations and within families about the legacy of the air raids and the war—as discussion continues about revising Japan’s “Peace” constitution—about what kind of future Japan wants for itself. Perhaps the film could even be one small part of building pressure on the governments of Japan and Tokyo to act in meeting the demands of survivors.

I’d also hope Paper City gives people pause to think about how bombing campaigns are used in warfare still today, and that the trauma of aerial strikes can mark survivors for life. We see it continue again and again—in Vietnam, Korea, Iraq, Syria, Yemen, Palestine, Ukraine.

And perhaps for viewers to reflect on the film’s central themes of memory and forgetting, specifically what we choose to keep and discard about the past—and why. Even after 77 years, there are many on the allied side in World War Two who simply want to believe that war crimes against Japanese or German civilians committed are justifiable because of terrible German and Japanese atrocities elsewhere.

When and where did the documentary have its premiere, how were the first reactions, both in the audience, as well in the media?

Paper City premiered in August 2021 at the Melbourne International Film Festival. I flew to Melbourne from Tokyo especially for our world premiere but after I arrived, Melbourne began a strict lockdown, and the festival ended up online only. We got incredible great reviews and articles written about the film, and from all reports, people were very moved. There were similar stories from festivals in the US. A large part of this was that many people outside of Japan simply know very little if anything at all about the bombings. But for me, Nippon Connection will be my first chance to present the film directly to an audience. I’m very excited to experience their reaction first-hand.

How did you perceive the Japanese premiere? Were the audiences and media’s reaction different? It’s obviously a very Japanese issue... How did it all differ, if there was a difference, how unique was the audience’s reaction here in Japan?

We have not had an official premiere in Japan yet, but we did hold a private screening in Tokyo for cast, crew, and crowdfunding donors. The reaction from this screening was overwhelmingly positive—not least from bombing survivors in the room, who felt very validated by seeing their stories on the big screen. There was also a lot of media interest in “Paper City” around the anniversary this year—from NHK and several newspapers.

I’ve realized that for many younger people in Japan, including those who grew up in Tokyo, the film is an introduction to the extent of the damage that was done to Tokyo and other cities. And then the film gives them a first chance to think about what it means when this history is forgotten—when the terrible destruction done to their cities is missing from their own cities’ identities, their own sense of who they are.

Is there any way to watch the film online already? Is there any distribution of the documentary in place?

In the first year or so we are focussed on film festivals. So far we’ve screened at Santa Barbara International Film Festival and Full Frame Documentary Film Festival, both in the US. We have a worldwide sales agent who is currently exploring ways to distribute the film beyond that. We hope to have some exciting announcements in the next few months. We are also in talks to find some kind of distribution in Japan. We want to share the film with as many people as possible in Japan, and to help inspire discussion about the fact and the legacy of the air raids.

To conclude our talk... How do you continue as a director yourself? Are there new projects or are there ideas for new films on the horizon?

This is the big question! Making films is exhausting. But after one, I want to do it better next time. I have a couple of big obsessions recently. I’m thinking a lot about different notions of time—as a circle, an arrow, a spiral. Over the next few months I’m going to give myself some time for input—watching films, reading, traveling, observing. And give these ideas some space and time to take more concrete shape.

Thank you for the interesting conversation and good luck for “Paper City”, the cause and your ongoing work!

Thank you very much for the chance to talk about it!


About the Director

  • Born 1974 in Australia, lives and works in Japan since 2005.
  • After studying documentary film at the Victorian College of the Arts in Melbourne, he made the short documentary LESSONS FROM THE NIGHT (2008), which premiered at the Sundance Film Festival in 2009.
  • "Paper City" (2021 / NC '22) is his first feature-length documentary.

"Paper City" has celebrated its European premiere on 24th and 25th of May 2022 at the Nippon Connection Film Festival in Frankfurt / Germany.


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