At 7:45 a.m. on August 9, 1945, the small island of Yakushima, located south of mainland Japan, became the aerial rendezvous point for B-29 Superfortress bomber ‘Bockscar’ and two other B-29s accompanying it on the mission to drop the second atomic bomb. From the start, the mission was ridden with complications, and when Bockscar was unable to make visual contact with the third plane, strict radio silence prevented any communication. With the A-bomb pre-armed onboard, Bockscar circled Yakushima relentlessly for 40 minutes before abandoning the rendezvous and proceeding to the target. However, the delay over Yakushima combined with unfavourable weather conditions ultimately prevented the plutonium bomb from being dropped on the primary target – the city of Kokura – and Bockscar released ‘Fat Man’ on its secondary target: Nagasaki.
War’s End is a subtle evocation of this place that plays out through a set of simply observed scenes of the landscape of the island. Following the course of a morning on Yakushima, a near circular island in Japan’s Ryukyu Archipelago, it is a vision of a small yet remarkably mountainous island, with a World Heritage listed wilderness core, unchanged for millennia. The film reflects on the chance survival of this ancient place, a history of endurance and longevity symbolized by Jomon Sugi, an ancient Cryptomeria japonica tree. The island’s Japanese cedars are amongst the oldest trees in the world and Jomon Sugi is estimated to be up to seven thousand years old. But the simplicity of the film’s framed landscapes is problematised by the soundtrack: a field recording made by Palmer of the original Angelus bell of Nagasaki’s Urakami Cathedral that stood only a few hundred metres from the hypocenter of the bomb. The bomb detonated at 11.02am destroying the cathedral, killing all inside, and silencing the Noon peal of the Angelus call to prayer. Slowed to 40 minutes, the length of time that Bockscar circled Yakushima, the Angelus peal becomes suggestive of the sounds of war: the drone of B-29s overhead or the Pikadon1 itself. It is also the aural signature that intrudes upon the contemplative visualization of the island, the sound a malevolent presence hanging over the vision of the island. To Palmer it seems a strange and tragic fate that Yakushima, a place of such primordial beauty, was the start-point for a savage moment of history. Accordingly, he has come to think of the island as ‘an unofficial garden of remembrance – a place of immense natural beauty and heritage that provides a poignant vantage point from which to reflect on a tragic episode in human history.’
1 Pikadon – the onomatopoeic Japanese term for the blinding light, ‘pika’, and thunderous boom, ‘don’, of the atomic blast, as described by those who witnessed it.