By Jim Gilles
Los Angeles, CA (The Hollywood Times) 11/8/21 – One unusual film included in the lineup for the 2021 Asian World Film Festival is “Prayer: Figments of Nagasaki” (Japan, 2021), directed by Katsuya Matsumura, who is generally known for his violent thriller-horror film series “All Night Long.” However, this film marks a major departure from his usual fare, giving us a story about the aftermath of the destruction of Nagasaki by the atomic bomb, as related in retrospect by several Catholic survivors from the city. “Figments of Nagasaki” is, in many ways, a “prayer” against war and what wars do to innocent civilians. It is 75 years since the U.S. dropped atomic bombs on the Japanese cities of Hiroshima and Nagasaki on 6 and 9 August, leading to the end of World War Two. The recorded death tolls are estimates, but it is thought that about 140,000 of Hiroshima’s 350,000 population were killed in the blast, and at least 74,000 people died in Nagasaki. The nuclear radiation released by the bombs caused thousands more people to die from radiation sickness in the weeks, months and years that followed. Those who survived the bombings are known as “hibakusha.” Survivors faced a horrifying aftermath in the cities, including psychological trauma.
Katsuya Matsumura has made the center of his film the famous Urakami Cathedral in Nagasaki, which was once the largest Catholic church in Asia. Urakami Cathedral, known as St. Mary’s Cathedral, was built in Nagasaki City by French missionary priests in the 1920s for the large Japanese Catholic community in the suburb of Urakami in Nagasaki. The atomic bomb exploded 500 meters above Urakami Valley, instantly turning the entire region into an inferno. In the church, parishioners were going to confession in preparation for the Feast of the Assumption. At the moment of impact there were 24 believers and two clergymen inside. They were killed instantly. The church ruin burned well until nightfall. Of the 12,000 parishioners in Urakami, 8,500 did not survive the day.
Matsumura’s film is partially based on history but he adds a set of intertwined stories about Japanese Catholic parishioners who were part of the congregation of Urakami Cathedral. He moves the story to 1957 and the post-war era of Japan when the city authorities were trying to decide whether to demolish the remains of the ruined cathedral. In the rubble are the remains of broken statuary from the church. We first see a man who appears to be hunchbacked carrying something heavy under his overcoat, as he enters a noisy bar with a brothel upstairs. He goes to see a woman (Reiko Takashima) who we assume is a prostitute, but we later learn that she is also a nurse working in a local hospital, dealing with patients suffering from radiation burns many years after the bombing of Nagasaki. She is the lead organizer of a group of Catholics who are trying to “steal” the broken pieces of a stone statue of the Virgin Mary from the ruined Urakami Cathedral and reassemble the statue in her room in the red-light bar district of a partially rebuilt Nagasaki.
In the same bar, we see a young woman who is selling books of poetry as well as several tough female prostitutes, a man suffering from PTSD who likes poetry, a tough gangster in a white trench coat, and a well-dressed older man who is on the City Council. All these characters will come together later in the meandering tale that mixes their lives in 1957 with the time right after the atomic bomb destroyed Nagasaki. The film weaves together their seemingly disconnected stories but the real historical tale is equally interesting.
On October 9, 1945 (2 months after the bomb hit the city), Kaemon Noguchi, a discharged Japanese soldier and Catholic priest, entered the ruins of Urakami Cathedral to pray. He hoped to find a tangible memento of the church of his youth, to take it to his Hokkaido Trappist Monastery. After more than an hour of searching the debris, Noguchi sat down in the rubble to pray. Then, suddenly, he noticed the eyeless features of the Madonna, staring at him blindly from the dust. Overwhelmed, Noguchi took the scorched wooden image with him to his monastery, where he kept it for 30 years. On August 1975, Kaemon Noguchi traveled to Nagasaki to return the image of the Madonna. He gave it to Professor Yakichi Kataoka, who kept the image at Junshin Women’s College for 15 years.
In the year 1990, Takeshi Kawazoe, head priest of the rebuilt Urakami Cathedral, wrote an article, mentioning it was fortunate that a Japanese soldier discovered the head of the statue of Virgin Mary. He hoped to discover the name of the soldier. Father Noguchi wrote a letter to the church explaining what happened. On August 1998, Mr. Yasuhiko Sata read a news story about the Madonna and visited Nagasaki to see the statue. He unexpectedly found the Madonna displayed amongst other relics in the Atom Bomb Museum. He convinced the church that the Madonna was not a mere memento of the nuclear holocaust but a holy object that should be returned to the altar. It was returned to the Urakami Cathedral in April 2000 and placed in special chapel.
It so happens that the atomic bomb did not entirely destroy everything in the church. A stone crucifix and two statues over the main entrance of the church survived. Today they grace the rebuilt Urakami Church. Two more, larger statues survived with minor damage. It seems that film director Katsuya Matsumura used the now legendary head of Mary as the impetus for his story about these intrepid Catholic believers in Nagasaki after World War II. There are two women who see the head of Mary and go to the ruined Cathedral to pray often and it is their piety that motivates the others.
It is helpful to note a few things about the city of Nagasaki and the reason for its sizeable population of Catholics. Shintoism and Buddhism are the majority religions of Japan. Catholicism arrived with Francis Xavier in 1549. This was the beginning of what is now known as Japan’s “Age of Christianity.” On the map, Nagasaki is one of the southernmost seaport cities in Japan and hence the place where the Portuguese Jesuits first preached Christianity in the 16th century. Persecution of Christians started in 1587 and the religion was formally banned in the early 17th Century. The Catholic community in Nagasaki survived underground for 250 years.
When France and Japan signed a trade agreement in 1859, the foreign community in Nagasaki was allowed to build a church: Oura Cathedral. The local Catholics made themselves known to the French priests. In 1865 the Nagasaki Catholics built four secret chapels. In 1868 persecution of Christians was resumed and more than 3,000 Catholics from the Nagasaki area were sent into exile. The exiles returned after the lifting of the ban on Christianity in 1873. In the early 1880s there were about 5,000 Catholics in the Urakami area. In 1880 the property where the church was to be built was acquired. On August 15th 1880, Mass was offered for the first time in a temporary chapel.
Freedom of religion was introduced in Japan with the constitution of 1889. In 1891, the Japanese Catholic Church was granted its own religious hierarchy. In the year 1914, the Urakami Cathedral (also known as St. Mary’s Cathedral) in Nagasaki City was built by Missions Etrangeres de Paris (a French religious order) and officially consecrated. In the original church, there was a wooden altar piece and the highlight of the altar piece was a wooden Madonna, inspired by Murillo’s painting of the Immaculate Conception. It was the head of this statue of the Madonna that survived the atomic bomb.
The film “Prayer: Figments of Nagasaki” seems far afield from the usual violent thrillers made by Katsuya Matsumura. Matsumura, who is 58 years old, learned filmmaking under the tutelage of Nobuhiko Obayashi, whose final film “Labyrinth of Cinema” (2019) is a powerful anti-war statement centered around the atomic bombing of Hiroshima in August 1945. Matsumura’s film was screened at the Japanese Film Festival in Los Angeles at the beginning of October 2021.