Akira "Harry" Mimura: From Hollywood to Hiroshima

Akira "Harry" Mimura
Akira "Harry" Mimura at the Mitchell NC for the 1932 feature A Kid from Spain. (Photo courtesy of Izumi Hashizume)

Shortly after 8 a.m. on the morning of Aug. 6, 1945, the B-29 Superfortress Enola Gay, piloted by Col. Paul Tibbets, entered airspace above the Japanese city of Hiroshima at 31,060 feet. When its payload, a uranium guntype atomic bomb, exploded about 2,000' above the Shima Surgical College, only 800' from its target, the Aioi Bridge, tens of thousands of people were killed instantly. Even the most conservative estimates place the number of those who died within the next several months at more than 100,000.

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The sky above Hiroshima on Aug. 6, 1945.

Seven months later, a Japanese cinematographer named Akira Mimura entered Hiroshima with a U.S. Army motion-picture unit to record the devastation and the bomb's effect on survivors; the group’s mission would also take them to Nagasaki, as well as more than a dozen other Japanese cities that had been carpet-bombed by U.S. aircraft. The 45-year-old Mimura had by then photographed nearly two-dozen feature films, including Akira Kurosawa’s first feature, the jidaigeki drama Sanshiro Sugata.

Akira Kurosawa with Mimura
Akira Kurosawa and Mimura during a break on Sanshiro Sugata.

Mimura’s early credits also included Humanity & Paper Balloons (1937), the last film directed by Sadao Yamanaka, a confirmed pacifist who was nevertheless drafted and died in service in Manchuria at the age of 29. (Of Yamanaka’s 22 films, only three survive.) Had Yamanaka survived the war, I believe his ongoing collaboration with Mimura would have become a cornerstone of Japanese cinema’s second Golden Age.

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Mimura (seated, second from left) with colleagues on Humanity & Paper Balloons. Director Sadao Yamanaka is at the eyepiece.

Mimura was an obvious choice for Lt. Col. Daniel A. McGovern’s Strategic Bombing Survey team in March 1946. Born on an island in Hiroshima Bay on Jan. 1, 1901, Mimura was not only a native son and a skilled cinematographer, but also fluent in English. After finishing middle school in Kanagawa Prefecture, he’d been sent to the United States for further schooling — first to Chicago, then to New York City, where he studied film. In 1929, he left New York for Hollywood, where he soon began working as a camera assistant on The Trespasser, Gloria Swanson’s first “talkie.” The film was directed by Edmund Goulding, and the photography was by George Barnes and Gregg Toland, who was 25 at the time.

Gloria Swanson (center) and Mimura (wearing beret) at work on The Trespasser.
Gloria Swanson (center) and Mimura (wearing beret) at work on The Trespasser.

Barnes was under contract to Samuel Goldwyn, and he had brought Toland’s work to the producer’s attention and asked if the younger cinematographer could share his screen credit. This continued for several more films until Barnes left Goldwyn, at which point Toland became Goldwyn’s cinematographer for the rest of his career. (He was loaned out to RKO for Citizen Kane.)

Mimura, who became known as “Harry” to his Hollywood colleagues, folded right into this rich mix, working as Toland’s assistant, and also with cinematographers Karl Struss, Alvin Wyckoff, Alex Phillips, Lee Garmes and Harry Perry. Much of his Hollywood apprenticeship involved camera and casting tests, additional scenes and reshoots.

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Mimura poses with fellow crew on The Trespasser. Co-directors of photography George Barnes and Gregg Toland are identified with handwriting; Barnes is second from left in the back row, and Toland is at far right in the front.

Mimura was not the first Japanese cinematographer to work in Hollywood; that distinction belongs to Henry Kotani, who photographed movies during World War I and then returned to Japan in 1920. (He continued to work for the next decade, mostly as director.) Kotani was one of the first cinematographers, along with Wyckoff, his mentor, to introduce so-called “Lasky Lighting” (low-key and controlled) in Hollywood movies. Mimura was, however, the first Japanese cinematographer to become a member of the Hollywood camera guild.

Mimura’s tenure in the American studio system, and especially his close relationship with Toland, who was several years younger, informed many of his later ideas about lighting and composition. Upon his return to Japan in 1935, Mimura quickly became a master of black-and-white photography, but in a style that was radically new to his colleagues. Toland, widely known for his use of deep-focus compositions, had already begun to develop these ideas with Barnes by the time Mimura joined them. (Barnes often gets short shrift for his own development of the technique, not even rating a page on the ICE website.)

In 1935, after spending a few years shuttling between the U.S. and Japan to care for his ailing father, Mimura reestablished himself firmly in Japanese cinema with Shigeo Yagura’s Kinu no dorogutsu. His cinematography on Kurosawa’s Sanshiro Sugata in mid-1943 employed extensive camera movement, soon to become a hallmark of the director’s style. Mimura’s work on Humanity & Paper Balloons, on the other hand, was restrained, even classical, offering Noh-theater-style static compositions. (There are just two slight camera pans in the opening few minutes, and a third pan in the climactic scene on a footbridge.)

Source: Mubi

Prior to Mimura’s return from Hollywood, most lighting on Japanese films was done from the floor. Mimura had watched the intricate choreography of Fresnel lights and grip cutters made by Hollywood studio crews working the overhead scaffolds known as “green beds” that ringed most sets. This technique facilitated greater light control on walls and subtle modeling on actors, and kept equipment off the stage floor. It was a style Mimura quickly adopted. When he joined PCL Studios (soon to become Toho), he employed overhead spot lighting units to create flattering three-point portrait lighting. Combined with his introduction of diffusion filters, Mimura’s work took on an American studio glow.

The Aesthetics of Shadow, Daisuke Miyao’s detailed look at the lighting of Japanese movies through the post-World War II era, discusses how quickly the innovations Mimura brought to Toho were adopted by his colleagues.

Mimura spoke of preferring longer focal-length lenses, 100mm or more, for his close-ups, a distinct departure from the direction in which Toland was going. However, greater depth of field was becoming easier as Kodak continued to introduce new panchromatic emulsions during the 1930s — that is, until Fuji motion-picture film was introduced in 1937, and relations between Japan and the United States grew increasingly tense.

When Mimura was forced to adopt Fuji film, with its contrasty hardness and limited gray-scale subtlety, it became more difficult for him to work in the aesthetic style he had learned in Hollywood. Several of his peers, including Tamura Yukiko, were outspoken in their criticism of his work. Here is Yukiko, cited in Miyao’s book:

Wasn’t Mr. Mimura’s low-key cinematography too much this time? We need details in darkness even when the scene is dark in general. Yet, there were some scenes when the in which the darkness was too dark.

Mimura must have found himself walking a tightrope as a Japanese artist: trained in America and trying to work as the two countries were facing off against each other in a devastating war, with atrocities on both sides. It isn’t easy to find American publications about Japanese cinema printed just before and during the war, but it appears that some Japanese cinematographers remained aware of what was happening with their Hollywood counterparts. Mimura wrote of his continuing admiration for Toland’s work in The Grapes of Wrath and The Westerner, though he also expressed more than a touch of envy at the seemingly unlimited resources available to his American colleagues.

[They] are provided with first-quality machines and allowed to work in the best conditions. They can shoot in high key or low key, depending on the goals of the films. They can have anything they want as long as they are available in the world.

In August 1941, in an article about Citizen Kane, Mimura wrote again about the advantages of Hollywood artists.

It was on a 1943 propaganda film, The War at Sea from Hawaii to Malaya, that Mimura was first given the prestigious title “director of photography,” a credit that was not in use in Japan at the time, according to Miyao. Mimura supervised the work of four cinematographers on this documentary-style movie. His next assignment was Kurosawa’s first feature, the only one he photographed for the director. Ironically, Kurosawa’s adoption of American cinema style was so fluid and adept that he became the first post-war Japanese director uniformly embraced by the West.

In Hiroshima in 1946, Mimura photographed in color for the first time. His approach was described by Roger Pulvers in a Japan Times article.

A specially equipped train, on which the film crew carried all its camera and other equipment, left Tokyo …. Mimura used the time on the journey to bone up on color filming from an American manual he brought with him. The footage is not the sort that we are used to seeing of the decimated cities. It is full of people, many of them going about their lives as best as they can. Women in colorful kimonos are out and about on errands. Children smile. Panoramic shots from high vantage points give a sense of scale to the destruction and the pace of life among the remaining ruins. (Mimura would sometimes borrow fire-truck ladders from the authorities to get those shots.)

It’s tempting to speculate on the emotions Mimura must have experienced as he set up his cameras amid the rubble of his hometown. Years later, a report from the London Committee on Damage by Atomic Bombs described the local effects of the U.S. attack:

Within 1.2 km. (.74 mi.) of the hypo-center, there was probably a 50% death rate of the 350,000 people estimated to have been in Hiroshima at the time. Hiroshima City Survey Section estimated a figure of 118,661 civilian deaths up to 10 August 1946. Add to this a probable figure of 20,000 deaths of military personnel and the current figure — for people are still dying as a result of the radiation received — is in the region of 140,000. Among those who survived, the long-term effects of radiation sickness, genetic and chromosome injury, and mental trauma have been catastrophic, even unborn children having been stunted in growth and sometimes mentally retarded.

Mimura became one of the founders of the Japanese Society of Cinematographers, and he worked with an eclectic group of directors after the war, including auteurs like Kon Ichikawa and Mikio Naruse. The last film of his career was the 1970 action potboiler Noon Sunday, directed by Terry Bourke.

I first became aware of Akira Mimura a few months ago, after Steve Pizzello at American Cinematographer connected me with Mizuho Endo and Takashi Shimizu, who are making a documentary for Japan’s WOWOW television that will be broadcast shortly before the 70th anniversary of the Hiroshima bombing. The interviewers provided me with Mimura’s biography, his Hollywood credits (not on IMDb), set photos, and a brief video clip from his wedding, which was attended by Barnes and actress Joan Blondell, Barnes’ wife at the time. (Barnes reportedly had eight wives, with Blondell wearing the ring between 1933 and 1936.)

The filmmakers spoke to me about Mimura’s years in Hollywood, his apprenticeship with Barnes and Toland, Hollywood studio lighting, and the union system. My own generation was the product of the final years of that tiered system, though it had become pretty ossified by the late 1960s. Today, many film students easily picture themselves emerging from film school as full-fledged cinematographers, an affordable Canon or Blackmagic digital camera at hand, ready to power up. I believe, however, that we learn best from one-on-one mentorship. However, in an era of flipscreen image capture, how does one passionately argue for the efficacy of the kind of learning curve that Toland and Mimura embraced?

I wondered if my Japanese interviewers would ask about Mimura’s 1946 Kodachrome photography of Hiroshima. They didn’t, but I am eager to see if it is covered in their documentary. For decades, this footage was classified. Most of the motion-picture images we’ve seen from that time (filmed in black-and-white) show empty streets, as though Hiroshima was a ghost town. But now, thanks to released dailies of Mimura's footage with camera slates intact, a moving portrait of humans on the brink of survival emerges.

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After a few repeated takes of a priest and several local children amid church ruins, Mimura’s camera opens to Hiroshima’s citizens moving through the streets, tending hastily erected clapboard homes, scavenging in the rubble, and even tentatively hoeing a makeshift garden. Lasting about 17 minutes, the footage is silent. The recurring camera slates lend a fine edge of odd objectivity to this encompassing tragedy.

By contrast, a black-and-white film featuring music and narration, ostensibly made before McGovern’s color record, clearly served the propaganda interests of the United States, extolling with a music soundtrack the technological majesty of American science.

Its grand martial obscenity simply pales next to the humanity recorded by Mimura’s lens.

The story of Mimura’s long-classified footage was revealed in an article in The Nation in August 2011.

This is what Mimura said about his camera documentation of Hiroshima:

I was put in charge of this unbearably painful filming job. Even if you consider a war between two countries to be unavoidable, why, you wonder, must innocent civilians be forced to go through such suffering? But a cameraman must face up to whatever he films, however horrified he is by it. It struck me that this film record would someday, in some way, come to serve a purpose.

Just how effective this purpose might be served by Mimura's filmed record remains an open question, as man continues to wreak havoc on his fellow man with ever-evolving technological prowess, with ever more deadly bombs.  So far, only the nuclear genie remains in the bottle.

Mimura, an artist of two cultures bound together by strips of celluloid, died two days before Christmas in 1985. He and his wife, Madge, are buried in Forest Lawn in Glendale, California.

 

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