Under the Mushroom Cloud — examining narrative in an audio story

Over seventy years have passed since the USA dropped an atomic bomb on the unsuspecting city of Hiroshima. In Under the Mushroom Cloud, BBC Radio 4 tell the story of that day through the eye witness testimony of Shuntaro Hida, a then 28-year old doctor who was spared from being in the epicentre of the blast by a knock at the door the previous night, from a man with a sick grandson in the next village.

This documentary uses a variety of narrative techniques in order to place the listener in the shoes of Hida, the main character of the story.

One of the most striking techniques is that the audience are treated very much as outsiders — unlike many audio documentaries, the presenter (in this case, Ruth Evans) never directly addresses the audience, never breaks from the interview to provide any extra information. Instead, everything the audience learns about that day comes directly from the interview itself, or through music, sound effects and other methods. This makes for a more intimate and ultimately more emotional experience because the audience is never pulled out of the interview by being addressed directly, the are allowed to remain invested in the conversation and forced to see that day through a first-person perspective.

While the main characters in this piece are Hida and Evans, it also makes use of an interesting potential third character — the translator. The documentary could easily have used a passive voice and told Hida’s story through reported speech rather than using a first-hand account to get around the issue of the language barrier. However, this would not have had the same emotional impact as hearing the story ‘straight from the horse’s mouth’ as it were. Producers chose to record Hida telling the story in Japanese, and then after a few seconds introduce a second voice in English while Hida’s voice continues to play quietly in the background. Allowing Hida to speak first and then overlapping the voices tells the audience that this is a direct translation without needing to be explicitly told, which links back to my earlier point about the audience never being addressed — perhaps an example of mimeses in audio.

Shuntaro Hida

Another example of mimesis in this documentary is the use of accents that provide another point of view, without the speakers needing to be introduced. As this is an extremely well known incident, some prior knowledge on behalf of the audience is assumed. This assumption means that the producer can introduce two voices with American accents (around the 6.20 mark) discussing seeing the smoke and fire of the bomb, and the listener knows that the perspective (or setting) has temporarily switched from Hiroshima itself to the United States, the country that dropped the atomic bomb.

Temporality plays a large role in this documentary, as it is ultimately the retelling of a specific event. During the thirteen minute clip, roughly a minute is spent establishing the life of the main character up until the day of the bomb — and even then, only the details that are relevant to the event such as when he moved to Hiroshima and the fact that he was a doctor at the military hospital there. From then on, the day the bomb dropped takes up nine minutes, around thirty seconds are dedicated to Hida’s actions in the weeks after the bomb, a further thirty seconds on Hida’s arrest by the US government for speaking about what he’d witnessed, and the final minute or so details the lasting effect the atomic bomb left on Hida’s life, and his reflection on nuclear power.

The structure of this piece seems to be a straightforward ‘Martini Glass’, a method that often appears in the reporting of disasters (Man, 2011). We begin with an ‘inverted pyramid’ establishing who is talking, why they are relevant to the overall story, and what the audience can expect to hear if they continue to listen. We then have the ‘stem of the glass’ a linear chronology of the events of the 6th August, 1945 as seen through the main character’s eyes. Finally, we have the ‘kicker’ — an ending that rewards the audience for sticking with the story. In many cases this can be a powerful quote or question. In this case, it’s Hida’s thoughts on nuclear power and the revelation that he believes:

“Human beings cannot coexist with nuclear power…we cannot escape from the fact it will always eventually damage us or kill us”.

This excerpt from the interview is particularly powerful to place at the end of the documentary as it symbolises what the attack on Hiroshima has taught the person who experienced it firsthand — it invites the audience to reflect on the information they have heard.

References:

Man, P. (2011). Narrative Structures in Data Visualizations to Improve Storytelling. [online] Masters of Media. Available at: https://mastersofmedia.hum.uva.nl/blog/2011/05/03/narrative-structures-in-data-visualizations-to-improve-storytelling/ [Accessed 19 Oct. 2017].