Arts movie review

Paper Lanterns: an awe-inspiring tale of compassion across cultures

Shigeaki Mori’s decades of research pay off

Paper Lanterns
Directed By Barry Frechette

Museum of Fine Arts Screening, Oct. 19, 2016

There are remarkably telling things in verbal language: the rhythm of intonations, the patterns of stress, the emotional resonance that is felt rather than spoken aloud. Even more telling are the words of the hero of Paper Lanterns, Japanese historian Shigeaki Mori, who, despite language and cultural barriers, spent over thirty years researching the fates of twelve American prisoner of war (POW) victims of the Hiroshima bombing.

As an eight year old boy, Mori witnessed countless deaths during the bombing — burnt and scarred bodies both on land and floating in the river that he’d fallen into. The victims he could not save inspired his future work as a historian and efforts in providing closure to these victims’ families, in spite of their American origins.

Among the twelve victims, Paper Lanterns centers around Normand Brissette and Ralph Neal, two American POW victims, including interviews with members of their families, who shared their gratitude to Mori for his compassion and dedication. The meetings between Mori and these family members are some of the most sincere in the film, because a difference in language did not mean a difference in heart.

As the interviewees explain, Mori discovered that the American victims were not recognized among Japan’s memorials and consequently set about registering the victims’ names, tracing their histories and families, and creating a memorial where there was none. During the Q&A session after the screening, director Barry Frechette explained that Mori took a night job as a security guard to pay for this memorial because he otherwise was not able to get the necessary funding.

The film also showed Mori calling the 50 states of the United States, spending every weekend for over 20 years calling phone numbers from the phone book using the little information he could find on the American POWs. Because he was unable to speak English, he relied heavily on operators to get in touch with the victims’ families. Some of the families did not want to talk about the incident, but many were grateful to finally find out what had happened to their loved ones.

The documentary is a testament to forgiveness and compassion, as victims of callous war remain fellow human beings no matter their nationality. The last scene in the film depicted Mori’s meeting with President Obama on May 27, 2016. After giving a warm address to the Japanese people, President Obama embraces Mori, recognizing him for his contributions and bringing this train of compassion full circle. Seventy years have passed since that mushroom cloud loomed above, but these past mistakes remain relevant and there is still work to be done.

The conclusion of the screening was met with applause, as Frechette and his crew came up to answer audience questions. Their passion for this film was commendable: from their inclusion of Japanese instruments in the score to their choice to not dub over Mori’s voice and to only use subtitles. As the crew agrees, Mori’s voice lends a certain emotional cadence to the film, and to remove his words in favor of an English voiceover would remove this aspect entirely.

Paper Lanterns was funded by a Kickstarter campaign, allowing Frechette and some of his team to travel to Japan to visit the sites and speak directly with Mori. Their ultimate goal was to have this film spread through the education system, to teach students about their history and that in spite of the past, peace is possible through acts of compassion and kindness, even between supposed enemies. They have managed to get Paper Lanterns shown in several Japanese schools and are looking to spread their message further.

Perhaps the most touching question asked by an audience member was whether Mori had seen the film. Frechette explained that they had invited Mori to watch one of the screenings with them. As his life’s work was shown to him, Mori began to weep.