“We who have witnessed the obscenity of war and experienced its horror and terrible consequences have an obligation to rise above our pain and suffering and turn the tragedy of our lives into a triumph.”
The 1945 firebombing of Tokyo by U.S. warplanes is the single most destructive bombing raid in human history. In one night, over 100,000 civilians were killed, a quarter of the city was destroyed, and a million people were left homeless.
Yet, considering the magnitude of this tragedy, the firebombing of Tokyo is rarely acknowledged—let alone memorialized—in the public consciousness, especially when compared to the atomic bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. It was this incongruency that inspired award-winning filmmaker Adrian Francis to write and direct his first feature-length film, Paper City, which chronicles three air-raid survivors as they struggle to preserve a public record of their experiences before they pass away.
In this interview, Adrian shares his inspiration for the film, the unique challenges he faced as a filmmaker in Japan, and his thoughts on why the tragic firebombing of Tokyo has yet to receive the recognition it deserves.
Searching for a Place in History
Over 100,000 people were killed, a million people were made homeless, and a quarter of the city was destroyed in a single nighttime air attack on March 10, 1945.
What inspired you to write and direct Paper City?
I was born in Australia, and in high school, the version of World War II that I studied focused heavily on allied victories, allied bravery, and the cruelty inflicted upon prisoners of war and civilians at the hands of the Japanese Imperial Army. Of course, I learned about Hiroshima and Nagasaki as well. However, I didn’t know anything beyond a vague notion about the bombing of Japanese cities in conventional air raids.
I had already been living in Japan for a few years when I watched The Fog of War, a documentary by the American director Errol Morris. This was my introduction to the bombing of Tokyo where, as Paper City points out, over 100,000 people were killed, a million people were made homeless, and a quarter of the city was destroyed in a single nighttime air attack on March 10, 1945. This was shocking not only because of the scale of death and destruction, but also because I had no idea that this had happened, despite living in Tokyo.
My initial reaction was to ask my Japanese friends about this. Everyone knew that the firebombing had occurred, but few people knew much beyond that. Not many were aware of the scale of this tragedy and why it’s so important. It was the most destructive air raid in human history.
I couldn’t understand where this story existed in Tokyo’s history and identity. Where were the memorials? Where were the traces of what had happened? Where was the public memory of what had occurred? I remember thinking that if this had happened in Australia, it would have become part of our identity. So, I wanted to know where the story of the Tokyo firebombing was and why it was missing. That’s what led to the creation of this film.
Behind the Scenes: Filming a Documentary in Japan
From strict attitudes toward public photography to a bureaucratic film permit system, Japan is known for being a challenging place to make movies. What unique challenges did you face when filming Paper City?
Since we were making a documentary, there were certain cases where we just followed the people we were filming, and we didn’t ask for permission to shoot. When we knew in advance that we were going to film somewhere public, or perhaps somewhere sensitive, we went through the proper channels to apply for permits.
For example, Kinshi Park—a public park depicted in the film—has some ridiculous permitting requirements. The red tape can get annoying, but filming certain places without a permit can be legally problematic down the line.
Sometimes, however, you can get permission to film on the spot by speaking to staff on premises instead of dealing with bureaucrats. This was the case when we filmed a scene at the Tokyo Metropolitan Memorial Hall.
Can you break down your role in bringing this film to life? What were your responsibilities as both the writer and director of Paper City?
It’s often hard to understand what a writer does on a documentary film. If you’re making an archive-based film with narration, then it’s easy to see that a writer drafts what needs to be narrated. For a film like Paper City, which is an observational documentary, the writing process involves producing a treatment that outlines the basic scenario, characters, filming locations, and how scenes might unfold. This also includes filming style and artistic intentions.
One reason I like making documentaries as opposed to narratives is because that cliché of staring at a blank screen and coming up with 100 pages of script is terrifying. With a documentary, when you have an idea, you might write a treatment first. Or, you might just find a character, start shooting, and then write a treatment afterward. But somewhere near the beginning of the process, you have to capture some material. From that, you at least have the first building block of a film. I find that process fascinating.
And how about your role as director?
Paper City is a small-budget film, and it’s driven by me and my producer, Melanie Brunt. We wore many hats during the filming process. We shot the film with a very small crew: basically, a sound recordist, a camera person, and me.
Before shooting a scene, I would speak with our director of photography, Brett Ludeman. I would explain where we’re going, who’s going to be there, and what I thought might come out of the scene. There were occasions when we lost what we had intended. However, we also picked up incredible shots that turned out much better than we could have imagined.
I sensed that most foreign audiences knew little or nothing about the firebombing of Tokyo before seeing Paper City.
How have audiences reacted to your film so far?
Paper City premiered in August 2021 at the Melbourne International Film Festival. However, this was during the pandemic, and Melbourne was in lockdown, so the film was only shown online. So, I’ve only had limited direct contact with audiences. However, from people that have reached out to me on social media, and from attending the Nippon Connection Film Festival last year in Germany, I sensed that most foreign audiences knew little or nothing about the firebombing of Tokyo before seeing Paper City. I know that, in general, audiences are moved by the film. The three elderly survivors featured in the movie are a big part of that: how resilient and good natured they are after having suffered so much trauma.
Viewers outside of Japan struggle to understand the post-war response within Japan. They are particularly surprised by how little the government has done for its own civilians.
The Complexity of Memorializing the Tragedies of War
One common thread in Paper City is that, in Japan, victims of natural disasters have received more attention, reverence, and aid from the government than civilians that were killed, injured, or displaced by war. Why do you believe that is the case?
Natural disasters have a shoganai [it can’t be helped] element to them. They just happen, and no one is to blame. Therefore, they are not controversial—nobody is going to get upset if we remember the victims of natural disasters. However, as mentioned in the film, when it comes to man-made disasters, blame can be appointed. Ultimately, people were responsible for the decisions that led to war and the targeting of civilians. Memorializing war tragedies is more complex because those who are responsible don’t want to talk about it. Ultimately, they’d rather let sleeping dogs lie.
That leads to my next question. Paper City focuses on the decades-long struggle of Tokyo air-raid survivors to gain official recognition from the Government of Japan. Why has this devastating bombing been politically downplayed when compared to other wartime tragedies such as the atomic bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki?
The first thing to consider is the question of who’s doing the remembering and who’s doing the forgetting? If you look at Hiroshima, Nagasaki, or even Okinawa, the decisions to memorialize those tragedies were made locally. They were city-level decisions that were made about the memories that those communities wanted to preserve.
Next, we have to consider the nature of atomic bombs. The intention behind the bombing of Tokyo and Hiroshima was the same: total destruction. But in Tokyo, it took 334 planes, two-and-a-half hours, and over 1,500 tons of bombs. In Hiroshima, this was accomplished with basically one plane and one bomb. That shook the world. That devastating potential defined an era. I think the atomic bomb is a “safe” way for the government to accept war remembrance because Japan was uniquely attacked—no other nation has endured this experience.
Additionally, if the government starts to talk about Japanese suffering by way of aerial attacks, apart from the atomic bombs, then it also has to confront the 268 times Japan bombed the city of Chongqing in China. It has to bring up the bombing of Northern Australia. And, it has to talk about the invasion of China, Korea, Taiwan, and so on. All of this was carried out through conventional warfare.
Lastly, we must consider the close postwar relationship between the U.S. and Japan. The U.S.-Japan Security Treaty means that neither country has anything to gain by bringing up the Tokyo firebombing. That’s a very close relationship. It doesn’t behoove Japan to be prodding its closest ally by bringing up things like this.
How and Where You Can Watch Paper City
How and where can people here in Japan, and those living abroad, watch Paper City?
Right now [March 2023], in Japan, you can watch Paper City at Theatre Image Forum in Shibuya. It should play there for several weeks. The film will then show in Osaka from March 11 and Ueda [Nagano] from April 1. We may get even more offers to show the film in Nagoya, Yokohama, and other locations throughout the country. As for international markets, in March, we’ll be showing Paper City in Ontario, Canada, at the Belleville Downtown DocFest, an international documentary film festival.