In 2015, some notes and other research materials from Kyoto Imperial University from the 1940s were unearthed. They revealed that Japan had also worked on the development of the atomic bomb during World War II, only to lag behind U.S. in progress. These materials provide Gift of Fire a new entry point for Japanese anti-war films, leading to a discussion about the entanglement of scientism, humanitarianism and nationalism in that era.
Yuya Yagira and Haruma Miura play two brothers. The older brother Shu is a young student and a member of the bomb-building team who starts to question the moral legitimacy of developing a nuclear weapon in the name of science. The younger brother Hiroyuki returns home briefly from the front, suffering from illness, trauma, and survivor guilt. In this final release of a Miura performance, the hidden pains of the character and Miura’s real-life tragedy (his suicide) make for heartbreaking intertextuality. While Shu finds his courage among his peer researchers and professors in the lab, which could be the closest thing to utopia during wartime, providing intellectual inspiration and collective care, Hiroyuki is doomed to endure solitude like many other young soldiers who will never find the right place to share their inner suffering with anyone at home.
The brothers’ childhood friend Setsu (Kasumi Arimura), who has moved in with them after her own family house is requisitioned, plays the role of “caregiver” both practically and emotionally. She looks after the brothers’ mother for them and reconciles them when they implicitly fight over her. She takes up the (gendered) responsibility given to her by the period, while putting her own ideals on hold. As an ordinary civilian who has no choice but to give everything that the war requires, the war in turn never gets her adrenaline levels up, nor does the militarist nationalist narrative or the scientific exploration. Because of this, she remains most conscious of the devastating implications of war, whether her people win it or lose it, even though she knows nothing about what it would take to bring the war to an end.
Since the university research team’s work is to create the bomb based on Einstein’s theory, “Einstein”, in pictures and in voiceovers (Peter Stormare), is very present in the film. Shu frequently talks with Einstein in his mind, which could of course be a mere projection of some his own ideas. The contradictory nature of scientific discovery and weapon building being two sides of one coin occupies an important place in the film, and the rationale that the film provides either leans on wartime nationalism or the supposedly innocence of science as hope of future. At the end of the film, “Einstein”‘s voiceover states firmly that human society is full of unknowns but scientific exploration always leads the right way. Moreover, titled Gift of Fire in English and 太陽の子 (Son of the Sun) in Japanese, the film’s narrative intentionally legitimizes science in the name of nature while blurring its social and political conditions. Its scientistic and anthropocentric perspective seems especially troublesome in today’s context, and is no less alarming as militarism.