Q&A: Irene Herrera, Sitting with the Kamikazes that Survived
Venezuelan-born, Tokyo-based video journalist Irene Herrera is one of Storyhunter’s most prolific freelancers. She has been commissioned on Storyhunter to produce compelling stories for a gamut of media partners: among them MSNBC, AJ+, Discovery Digital Networks, and Foodable.
Her latest piece for The Guardian was published this week, on the 70th anniversary of the end of World War 2. In it, she investigates the stories of two former Japanese kamikaze pilots, who reveal how they volunteered to give up their lives for the emperor, and looking back now, after being spared.
We caught up with her over email, as she was on her way to Miami to visit family.
Storyhunter: What drew you to this story? How did you gain access to the characters?
Irene Herrera: A few weeks ago, I had started contacting A-bomb survivors and pitching Hiroshima-related stories with little success. I really wanted to do something related to the 70-year end-of-war anniversary and was very determined because I knew so many survivors of the war were coming of age. There wasn’t going to a be a whole lot of chances to tell these stories and to encourage people to care. So when I saw the assignment on Storyhunter in which The Guardian wanted to do a story on this topic, I jumped on it right away.
Specifically for this piece, I had read the story of Takehiko Ena (one of the characters in the piece) about a month and half earlier and thought “Wow, this would be amazing to film”. It turns out The Guardian reporter had already contacted him, and helped secure the interview.
SH: Did you know what the narrative of the story would be like when you started it? What did you have in mind?
IH: At first, I wasn’t very sure.
Mr. Ena had previously been interviewed by other media so we had an idea of his story. We planned the questions well in advance, but I was concerned about whether we would be able to recount their stories clearly. Fortunately these two men have really good minds, bodies and spirits for their ages. If I can hit 90 sporting it like them I would feel very blessed!
I still wasn’t sure how to interweave the stories after we had finished the interviews. It only became clearer to me after listening to the interviews many times. Mr. Ena’s story was almost unbelievable and he also delivered it with more structure, a chronological sequence and he was very succinct about it so he became the main thread and then Mr. Horiyama’s experience complimented that narrative arc.
I only had one day to look at the historical footage so at that point I wasn’t sure how I was going to use it. I still shot a b-roll of them but at that point I wasn’t quite sure what I was going to use to illustrate their stories.
SH: What was it like for you, unveiling these touching stories? Were there any moments that caught you off guard?
IH: Yes, most definitely! All the time. The two men I filmed were full of surprises. With Mr. Horiyama, I chatted a lot off camera and we looked at his many pictures. I watched as he excitedly sent emails and surfed the Internet. And then he asked us to teach him how to take selfies. He has a zest for life and I’m just really happy they both survived and married beautiful women and had beautiful children and grandchildren. Mr. Ena particularly seems to have risen above everything he experienced during the war. It’s amazing that he can look back at his life and almost joke about it. I think they also realize that they were destined to survive.
Another touching moment for me was when I spent time at the Chiran Peace Museum. The curator, Mr. Kuwashiro, left me sitting there for a while reading the compilation of all the goodbye letters while he had to take care of something. In that half hour, I really couldn’t help but weep as I read them. When he came back, I was so embarrassed. In Japan you have a tendency of feeling very self conscious about expressing your feelings so openly. That really caught me off guard! Goodbye letters of of people that are about to die are not easy to ready.
After the interviews, going back out in the streets of Tokyo was a bit challenging. Values have changed so much and sometimes you get the impression that Japanese youth are so oblivious to history, to the past, to deeper values, to political or civic participation. Getting to know these two men reminded me of how many stories we have not heard and how everyone has their personal story. If I saw these men on a train in Tokyo I just would never guess they have lived through these experiences. Every person is truly a mystery and has a story inside.
I’m just really grateful that I met them both.
SH: It seems like it was an emotional experience for you! What was it like for Mr. Ena and Mr. Horiyama to tell their own story?
IH: They were both very different in personality: Mr. Horiyama was a bit more serious than Mr. Ena. However, during their interviews, they told their stories with accuracy and emotion and their faces expressed so much. I think for them it wasn’t so difficult. In many ways they are so mature now and have this wisdom that allows them to laugh a bit at who they were back then and what they went through.
I really enjoyed spending time with them. I felt they were walking miracles and their life stories fell at the intersection of the human story and spiritual meaning, which is something that really interests me. You have to wonder why are these men still here. Why did they survive while their fellow kamikazes did not? Why was this their fate? It brings up a lot of feelings about the meaning of life. Of course, as the person behind the camera, one feels a sense of responsibility to craft the story in an audiovisual form. The story was powerful in itself — now I just had to do the work to put it together.
SH: The piece showcased some striking historical footage. Tell us how you went about getting access to it.
IH: Before I had looked at the historical footage I thought it was going to be so much more challenging to create a story that relied so heavily on it, visually. But once I started to dig deeper, I was very drawn to it. The Japanese emperor on his white horse, the way people bowed before him, the lines of men marching or obeying his orders. It just revealed so much of Japan and I recognized many of these values still present in today’s Japan but manifested in such a different way: the self-sacrifice, the obedience, the commitment to the group, the capacity to suppress your own personal feelings in the face of a group; the ability to push through, the discipline. That sense of Bushido that Mr. Horiyama talks about. These are all so different from the values I grew up with in Latin America.
Back to the footage: I didn’t just want to use Getty Images, I really wanted to see what else was out there. So I looked at material from the US National Archives, Japanese war reels and other sources and found things I had never seen before. Naturally what impressed me the most was the footage from Hiroshima — no matter how many times I went through it while editing, every time I saw it I felt something.
SH: How much time did you spend shooting this piece?
IH: Each interview was done on two separate days, and I also spent a day visiting the Chiran Peace Museum in Kyushu (about a half day travel from Tokyo). I spent more time listening to the interviews, understanding them, going through transcriptions, researching historical footage and of course editing the piece than actually shooting.
At the museum, I was very impressed by the letters that some former kamikazes wrote to their families and loved ones. I am not Japanese but I’ve been living here for 15 years — which is the longest I have lived anywhere. In many ways I do feel a personal connection to historical events, even if it’s not the history of “my” nation or “my” people. Japan has adopted me so its history affects me in a way.
SH: Now these men are grandfathers. You mentioned that your perspective of them is different after meeting with them.
Conflict is very complicated, it’s never really black and white. When you meet men who were real-life kamikaze pilots, like the ones you’ve seen in movies and in newsreels, it obviously shatters the stereotype. My personal perception of them were as very gentle, tender, sweet, and honestly just huggable. They are different people now and they’ve come a long way. It also speaks of how humans are in a constant process of self-transformation and once they hit this age they have heard it all, seen it all. The elderly deserve that reverence. Perhaps Mr. Horiyama still believed a bit in the concept of a nation, an emperor and self-sacrifice but Mr. Ena was a lot more cynical about the past. At some point it even crossed my mind that maybe he would have crashed the plane into the ocean on purpose.
They do both realize how horrible the war was. And by talking to them, one also realizes how much power Emperor Hirohito had in that historical moment. It’s frightening that one human being or a group of them can make decisions and manipulate a mass of people. We are still living this phenomenon today, in many conflicts.