So, I started off the last morning of 2020 with tears in my eyes. A period of time I’m fascinated by, mostly in the horrific and appalled sense, is the first, and so far only, use of nuclear weapons in human history, the bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki on Aug. 6, 1945 and Aug. 9, 1945, respectively.
Since those unprecedented acts of human carnage — people like to downplay them by pointing to the firebombing of Tokyo and Dresden, but there’s something categorically different about incinerating thousands of people in an instant, that shock wave spreading out for miles, and people getting sick and dying years later from it — it’s impossible to extricate Japanese art and culture from the influence of those mushroom clouds. Obviously, one of the most prominent examples of this only nine years later was 1954’s Godzilla, which, unfortunately, was Americanized and lost any of that context. Japanese artist Takashi Murakami argued to NPR that Hello Kitty, video games, and anime in Japan (look at the pioneering Akira, which I hope to watch soon) were all influenced by the bombings as well.
In 1974, the Japan Broadcasting Corporation started collecting paintings and drawings from people who had lived through the atomic bombings and exhibited them in Hiroshima (which is crazy in itself, only 29 years after the bombing), according to VICE. Those paintings and drawings were then featured in a recent documentary, the bomb, to “provide a new window through which to experience the horror of nuclear warfare, to make sure it’s not forgotten.” I hope you go to the link from VICE I provided and look at all of the featured artwork. All of them are powerful, but there was one in particular that made my eyes well up with tears.
This painting/drawing is from artist Kichisuke Yoshimura, who said of it, “Their clothes ripped to shreds, their skin hanging down. On the riverbank I saw figures that seemed to be from another world. Ghost-like, their hair falling over their faces, their clothes ripped to shreds, their skin hanging. A cluster of these injured persons was moving wordlessly toward the outskirts.”
It’s interesting, when I looked through these pieces, including Yoshimura’s, it evoked a sense of zombies, the walking undead. The idea of the walking undead terrorizing the living has been around since the Ancient Greeks and popularized perhaps the most by George A. Romero’s 1968 zombie flick, Night of the Living Dead, but it takes on a whole new quality here. These people are still alive. They’ve somehow, miraculously survived a nuclear bombing, but also, they’ve been left alive only to endure the hell of their flesh literally drooping from their bodies, and in a zombie-like state, dazed and confused, wandering this new hell, as Yoshimura depicts. And he depicts it in such a way that you viscerally feel the heat, the radiation, and the sense of hopelessness those people near the blast site must’ve felt. Also, once their flesh is burned off, they are faceless and nameless, sort of like a zombie horde, which feels crude to compare to, but that’s what it made me think about.
Yoshimura was 18-years-old at the time when he witnessed this hell on earth and a mere 2.6 miles from the hypocenter of the blast, according to the Hiroshima Peace Memorial Museum. What he’s depicting occurred near the riverbank near the Hiroshima Machinery Division, Hiroshima Railway Bureau. Imagine either of those facts, both being that young and being that close to something like an atomic bomb going off. It’s hard to even fathom.
In another one he did, Yoshimura said they were “injured like creatures from another world,” which is a beautifully haunting and succinct way of describing what he’s portraying. This one even more devastating perhaps:
With this second piece, the desperation feels even more pronounced and potent. Whereas the first evoked a sense of dazed and confused, this one evokes that desperation inherent in our human DNA to survive, but also, survive what? This? It’s madness, utter madness.
These paintings and drawings will sit within my brain for a long time to come. I’ve written previously about the bombings, as I tend to do with each anniversary, but I never knew about this artwork before. I’m glad I do now, no matter how awful it is to take them in because we can never forget how destructive these bombs are and ensuring they never get used again.
What do you make of these paintings and drawings?