When he first learned in middle school about World War II and the bombing of Hiroshima, Japan, Perry Hallinan wondered why his history teacher portrayed the event as an unambiguous American triumph.
“I remember clearly thinking, ‘I wonder how the families felt on both sides?’ ” said the filmmaker, who grew up in Peabody.
Now 38, he’s spent more than a decade finding out. While living in San Francisco in 2001, Hallinan read a newspaper story about Takashi Tanemori , a Hiroshima survivor who was delivering a message about the art of forgiveness.
The half-hour documentary they’ve made together – “Return to Hiroshima: Family Bonds and the Atomic Bomb” – has a screening at CinemaSalem at 8:30 p.m. Wednesday, marking the 69th anniversary of the bombing. The film follows Tanemori as he travels back to Japan to meet with his estranged older sister, now in her 80s, to learn more about the parents he barely knew.
Hallinan read the story about Tanemori shortly after 9/11. “Here was somebody who’d already been through devastation,” he recalled in the office and editing studio he shares with fellow filmmaker Joe Cultrera in Salem. “How he spoke really had an effect on me.”
He was inspired to explore the notion of “how we behave with one another in a time of crisis.”
So he showed up on Tanemori’s doorstep to introduce himself.
The day the
“He had messy hair, and he was skinny as a telephone pole,” recalled Tanemori, 76, on the phone from his home near San Francisco. “I thought, ‘What in the world!’ ”
Over time, however, the survivor and the filmmaker developed a bond close enough that Tanemori persuaded Satsuko, his sister, to welcome Hallinan and his film crew into her home in Kotachi Village, about 60 miles north of the city of Hiroshima.
“That was very unusual for my sister,” he said. “She cannot bend — she has a steel-like spine.”
Tanemori was an 8-year-old boy in school when the US bomber Enola Gay dropped the first atomic bomb — code named Little Boy — on Hiroshima on Aug. 6, 1945. He was playing with friends less than a mile from ground zero.
His parents and two of his four sisters perished; a younger brother also survived. Tanemori suffered severe burns and has gradually lost his eyesight from the blast.
Living on the streets, Tanemori said he grew into a wild child who let his anger consume him. As a teenager, he tried to commit suicide. After he immigrated to America in 1956, he struggled with revenge fantasies, even as he became a Christian minister.
As he toiled in various careers, it would be decades before he truly looked to forgiveness as an alternative.
One day — he remembers it precisely: Aug. 15, 1985 — Tanemori had a vision that “my father’s spirit appeared to me. I knew that was my daddy. He said, ‘You have found the greatest way to avenge your enemy – by learning how to forgive.’ ”
Tanemori began speaking to classrooms, community groups — anyone who would listen — about what it means to let go of anger. The intuition that his father was urging him to forgive sparked a complete metamorphosis, from bitterness and grief to the magnanimity he expresses today. On a suggestion from some college students in Colorado, he began to personalize his talks with his own recollections and artwork inspired by his childhood memories.
“If you go into a pitch-dark basement, what do you do?” he asks. “You cannot fight darkness with darkness. You turn the lights on.
“This is my heart,” he continued, explaining how his talks have evolved to become far more personalized. “Until we can conquer our own heart, we cannot conquer darkness.”
Hallinan attended Bishop Fenwick before studying animation and documentary filmmaking at the Rhode Island School of Design. Returning to Massachusetts in 2009 after almost a decade in San Francisco, he connected with Cultrera, who had interviewed Hallinan’s grandfather for a film about Peabody’s leather industry.
They share a sprawling office on Pickering Wharf, producing some of the Salem Film Fest’s “Salem Sketches” — short documentary “tangos,” as they call them, about the city’s quirky history and businesses. When they need a break, they play a vintage table hockey game that has pride of place between their desks.
Hallinan was moved by Tanemori’s transformation – how he “came to terms with all that emotional weight on his spirit.” But even though Tanemori knew more about American culture than Japanese culture when they met, there were still plenty of barriers to overcome in making the film.
Hallinan studied Japanese for three years in preparation for the filming trip to Japan, which took place in 2005. How much did he understand Satsuko when they met?
“Zero,” he said with a laugh. One friend in the crew had taught English in Japan; he was “semi-fluent,” he recalled.
But they knew nothing about Japanese customs and behaviors. “We were bumbling fools, basically,” he said. With guidance from Tanemori and his sister, however, they managed.
As close as they’ve become, Hallinan and Tanemori still disagree on how to tell the survivor’s story. The older man would like to see a feature-length documentary, but the filmmaker saw an opportunity to market the film as a half-hour educational tool.
The challenge, said Hallinan, is discovering “how to tell someone else’s story in an artistic way.
“I like the whole idea of generations exchanging stories,” he said.
“He has strong conviction in what he does,” said Tanemori, who will be on hand at San Francisco’s First Unitarian Universalist Church on Hiroshima Day to open a solo exhibit of his late-in-life artworks. “I feel he’s learning. Whatever he does, I will accept.”
Tanemori paid Hallinan high praise when he calls him “oni ni kanabo,” which, he said, is “somebody standing next to you, protecting you.”