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Documentary Recalls Japanese Fishing Boat Caught In U.S. Atomic Testing

In Command and Control, Eric Schlosser’s 2013 book about the U.S. nuclear arsenal, the episode warranted just a paragraph: in 1954 a Japanese fishing boat was showered with fallout from atomic testing in the Pacific Ocean.

"Day Of The Western Sunrise" screens at 7 p.m. Sat., Sept. 29, and 3 and 8:30 p.m. Sun., Sept. 30. Row House Cinema, 4115 Butler St., Lawrenceville.

But Pittsburgh-based filmmaker Keith Reimink was intrigued. He started looking for surviving members of the 23-man crew of the ironically titled tuna trawler Lucky Dragon. That was the seed of his new documentary Day of the Western Sunrise, which world-premieres this weekend with three screenings at Row House Cinema, in Lawrenceville.

The film is notable for blending first-person narration with animated recreations of events from 1954. The compelling animation style – two-dimensional paper-cutout characters populating 3D environments, from engine room to hospital ward – was directly inspired by the interviews Reimink and his Daliborka Films crew conducted in Japan in 2014, six decades after the original incident.

The scene was mid-1950s Japan, still recovering from the war and the nuclear strikes on Hiroshima and Nagasaki. From its provincial port, The Lucky Dragon sailed far in search of fish, but would be remembered most for inadvertently entering the blast zone, near the infamous Bikini Atoll. It was one of hundreds of boats to suffer that fate.

The Lucky Dragon made it back to port, and, to a greater extent than the other irradiated craft, made the news. Its crew came down with radiation sickness. Though most survived the initial illness, radiation sickness was still thought communicable by many Japanese. The crew members were subject to social shunning, and seen as unmarriageable pariahs. Depression and alcoholism followed for some, and many died young.

In 2014, of the five crew still alive, three consented to interviews: refrigeration man Matashichi Oishi, wheelman Susumu Misaki, and engine-room worker Masaho Ikeda. In the film, the men are alternately garrulous and thoughtful, and narrate the story in their own voices. The animation that illustrates the narrative is based on the traditional Japanese art of using paper-cutout characters to tell stories.

Credit Image courtesy of Daliborka Films
Image courtesy of Daliborka Films
Masaho Ikeda, the engine-room worker on "The Lucky Dragon," is one of three survivors interviewed in the film.

“The whole thing is in Japanese, there’s no English, it’s all subtitles, and it’s all from the perspective of the fishermen,” said writer and director Reimink. “So we thought that we should use a traditional Japanese storytelling method to tell a Japanese story.”

The animation is by Josh Lopata and Justin Nixon. More than 2,000 individual drawings were produced for the film, and the literal two-dimensionality of the characters communicates a profound sense of the fragility of human life.

Reimink is a Michigan native who graduated from New York University’s Tisch School of the Arts. In 2013, he moved to Pittsburgh because his girlfriend was attending grad school here. (The two have since married.) Reimink’s jobs have included working as a cook in such remote locales as Alaska and Antarctica. His first feature-length documentary was No Horizon Anymore, about a year he spent living and working at the South Pole. The 2014 film screened at Pittsburgh’s Three Rivers Film Festival and at festivals as far afield as Germany and New Zealand, picking up some awards along the way.

Day of the Western Sunrise follows Daliborka Film’s credo of “films with a purpose.” The travails of the Lucky Dragon and its crew, Reimink says, helped launch Japan’s anti-nuclear movement, and a couple of the boat’s aging survivors speak at anti-nuclear events to this day.

For tickets and other information about the screenings, see the Row House Cinema website.

Bill is a long-time Pittsburgh-based journalist specializing in the arts and the environment. Previous to working at WESA, he spent 21 years at the weekly Pittsburgh City Paper, the last 14 as Arts & Entertainment editor. He is a graduate of Northwestern University's Medill School of Journalism and in 30-plus years as a journalist has freelanced for publications including In Pittsburgh, The Nation, E: The Environmental Magazine, American Theatre, and the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette. Bill has earned numerous Golden Quill awards from the Press Club of Western Pennsylvania. He lives in the neighborhood of Manchester, and he once milked a goat. Email: bodriscoll@wesa.fm