“When I first walked by the school, there was a huge pile of dead people. I saw the clothes my older sister had been wearing, so I immediately knew it was her,” Masaharu Otake told Hoboken filmmaker Joshua Tanzer in August 2006 when recounting the bombing of Tokyo in March 1945, the last year of World War II.
More than three hundred U.S Army Air Force B-29’s raided Japan from the skies above on that day 70 years ago; dropping close to 1,700 tons of bombs. The U.S mainly deposited “cluster bombs,” which released incendiary bomblets killing more than 100,000 people.
Otake told Tanzer how his mother was able to survive by clinging to the edge of a reservoir to escape the heat while resisting the urge to fall asleep. His grandmother and sister, however, were trapped in a sort of drainage that they jumped into. It overfilled. The old, sick, and adolescent were trampled at the bottom while the young and healthy fought their way to the top.
The next day, Otake spotted his sister’s dress while firefighters removed the individual bodies from the streets with hooks.
“I placed her body here, and I was with my mother, and being a mother, she clung to my sister and cried for a long time,” continued Otake, who was 14 at the time.
“When you’re killing civilians, families with mothers and children, those people are all the same.” – Joshua Tanzer
But instead, he was just trying to keep up as Otake traversed his neighborhood in Tokyo. Tanzer doesn’t speak Japanese, so at the time he didn’t know what Otake was saying.
“It was three months later that I got the translation back by email from our translator in Tokyo. The three different times I’ve read it, I cried,” Tanzer said.
Tanzer, who has lived in Hoboken since 1990 and currently works as a copy editor at the New York Post, has been working on his documentary, “Kaboom,” with independent cinematographer Philip Armand. He hopes to release his film in 2017 or 2018, and he launched a Kickstarter campaign this month to help raise funds to continue his work.
At the end of filming Otake’s story, Tanzer asked if he could include it in the documentary.
“Well when you first asked me to, I didn’t think my story was very suitable, but if you think it will help world peace…I give you permission,” Otake responded, according to Tanzer.
Giving a platform to stories like Otake’s, Tanzer says, is the mission of his documentary.
Victims, so many years later
Tanzer, an Oregon native, has worked mainly as a print journalist throughout his career for various newspapers in New Jersey, with “Kaboom” being his film debut.
Thus far, he has filmed in 12 countries including England, Germany, Spain, Iraq, China, France, and Japan. In the coming months, he will set out to Vietnam and Laos, with the possibility of an additional four to five countries after that.
For almost a decade Tanzer has been working to produce the film with occasional roadblocks along the way. The Kickstarter is unique in it encourages people to donate as little as $1, with an overall goal of raising $10,000 (although the $1 donation rule is temporary). The money will help with post-production and traveling costs, but Tanzer welcomes people to help any way they can.
“Even if people can only participate in small way,” he said in an interview, “we have to go to Toronto soon I think. If somebody has a location and they think we can film there, or a couch for us, [that would help]”
Tanzer noted that many who experienced “air warfare” during past wars will soon reach the 100-year-age benchmark. Sometimes when he arrived in small towns, victims had just died or were too sick to speak.
Why did he decide to make the film?
“People ask me that all the time,” he said. “I think there are many reasons. But one is, I had this feeling after the 9/11 [World Trade Center terrorist] attacks that people were stunned and didn’t know what to do because we have no procedures and no rituals to deal with the sudden murder to 3,000 people. In a way, I haven’t found the answer but we went around the world to find out what other people have done.”
The documentary explores that question, also looking at other angles of bombings: the history, modern day drone attacks, the military’s perspective, and cities with bombs that have not detonated.
In his travels, Tanzer encountered Victor Gregg, a 25-year-old British World War II soldier in 1945 who was captured by the Germans. Gregg was sentenced to death for sabotage, only to escape after a firebombing and forced to seek resources amid entirely burned families in cellars.
Tanzer and Armand also met Zhao Mengrong, 13 in 1940, who worked in a textile factory since 9 in Chongqing, China. She was slashed in the face by shrapnel from a Japanese bomb and fired for her disfigurement.
Aras Akram of Halabja, Iraq, told Tanzer of losing his family in their basement during Saddam Hussein’s gas attack, which blinded many. It happened in 1988 and he was 22.
One Kurdish man, Hoshyar Ali, the filmmaker remembered, claimed to have dismantled over 200,000 bombs and basnews.com reports that he has defused over 2 million mines in Iraq, as part of his full-time work.
On the day that the man met Tanzer, “He pointed to one leg and said ‘Italian mine’, and pointed at another and said ‘Israeli mine.’ ” The man, who had two prosthetic legs, surprised the crew while they prepared to film when he suddenly twisted his prosthetic leg all the way around and placed a magazine upon it for a more comfortable read.
The film works to challenge the perception that civilians are merely collateral damage during aerial bombings, when more commonly they are the intended targets, Tanzer explained. In the majority of wars, he noted, when countries attempt to force surrender through bombings, they tend to fail.
Among the commonalities between the many people he has spoken to so far, Tanzer said, was that “when you’re killing civilians, families with mothers and children, those people are all the same. It doesn’t matter if they’re Germans, or Japanese, or Americans. They’re all the same in terms of their value as people.
The biggest problem with bombing is that it targets civilians.”
To learn more about “Kaboom: A History of Bombing” visit www.kaboommovie.com. To learn more or donate to the film, search Kaboom: A History of Bombing on Kickstarter or directly visit www.kickstarter.com/projects/1199815402/kaboom-a-history-of-bombing.
Steven Rodas can be reached at email@example.com.