Seeds of Hope: Trees Survive Hiroshima, Flourish in “Tree Project Film”

Anne Pride-Wilt, Staff Writer

Hiroshi Sunairi is no stranger to disaster. Born in Hiroshima, Japan in 1972, the artist, filmmaker and NYU professor grew up in an environment saturated with the memory of the city’s atomic bombing in 1945. But to him, the most interesting part of the bombing is not the lives lost or the destruction. As he demonstrated in his lecture and short film Tree Project Film, screened in Hallock Auditorium Monday night, Sunairi is touched most by the hibaku, or “A-bombed,” trees — those that survived the bombing and still live today. Sunairi’s film is brief but touching, a fitting tribute to the trees. It also manages to address not only the tragedy itself, but also the resilience that has allowed the people of Hiroshima to heal and grow.


The first slide of Sunairi’s PowerPoint presentation was a jarring image of the World Trade Center billowing smoke on Sept. 11, 2001. He explained that he had been stuck on the subway on the way to an immigration appointment that day and had emerged to see the image projected behind him on a screen. Following the attack, Sunairi gave his students an assignment to create a piece of art on the theme of peace. When he set out to complete the assignment himself, the connection of the attack to the Hiroshima bombing was clear. The bureaucratic difficulty of acquiring materials rendered his original project — a wireframe elephant filled with objects salvaged from the Hiroshima bombing — unfeasible until, while still in Japan, he happened to attend a lecture given by a tree doctor.


The lecture Sunairi attended, on the subject of the care of the bombed trees, inspired him to give his art project a new direction. The elephant frame, which he chose because of its traditional connection with memory and “never forgetting,” was eventually filled with pruned branches. It also led to the creation of his short film, the straightforwardly-titled Tree Project Film, that Sunairi screened for the Hallock audience.


The film, approximately 20 minutes long and in Japanese with English subtitles, is a dialogue-light documentary pieced together primarily from images of the resilient trees of Hiroshima. The camera slowly and lovingly pans over the trees, accompanied by a voiceover from the tree doctor, Dr. Chikara Horiguchi, who explains the immediate effect of the bombing on the trees. The attacks did not stunt the trees but spurred rapid growth for three years after in an effort to heal the damage from the blast. Sunairi also included shots of workmen pruning the trees to make their branches lighter and, in the most affecting shot of the film, a long shot of an enormous camphor tree in the playground of a Hiroshima elementary school surrounded by children playing. Children, Sunairi seems to imply, will never understand the full import of the bombing.


As suggested by Sunairi’s choice of an elephant for his project, combatting the decay of the tragic memory is of particular importance for him. Fortunately, the hibaku trees that are Sunairi’s focus provide a poignant medium for the perpetuation of the memory — their seeds. Sunairi closed the evening by inviting audience members to take not only a cut piece of branch for themselves as a memento but also a seed of a hibaku tree. The seed could be planted, he explained, and would perhaps sprout. The metaphor was clear: By dispersing the seeds of the damaged trees and allowing the trees to propagate the memory, we are affirming the city’s resilience and ensuring that future generations will recognize it as well.