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Where EAST meets the Northwest

From The Asian Reporter, V16, #3 (January 17, 2006), page 11.

Two films for all ages about Hiroshima

Hiroshima No Pika

Directed by Noriaki Tsuchimoto

Produced by Tetsujiro Tamagami

Distributed by First Run Features, 2005

DVD, 25 minutes, not rated, $29.95

on the same DVD:

Hellfire: A Journey from Hiroshima

Directed by John Junkerman

Produced by John W. Dower and John Junkerman

58 minutes, not rated

By Mike Street

Special to The Asian Reporter

The 1945 nuclear bombing of Hiroshima seems an unlikely subject for a childrenís book. And in less skilled hands than those of Japanese artist Toshi Maruki, it might have made a poor, or at least a didactic, tale. But Marukiís award-winning Hiroshima No Pika, first published in 1982, remains a classic for its unflinching yet tenderly expressionistic view of this terrible event. In a new DVD, actress Susan Sarandon reads Hiroshima No Pika while Marukiís beautiful, haunting artwork fills the screen; included on the DVD is the Academy-Award-nominated Hellfire, about Toshi and her husband Iriís struggle to paint Hiroshima and other wartime atrocities. The two short films help children grasp the horrific implications of war, while providing insight into the Marukisí creative process.

Hiroshima No Pika ("The Flash of Hiroshima") centers on Mei, a young Japanese girl living in Hiroshima during World War II. After describing the wartime life of Meiís family, Toshi turns to the events of August 6, 1945, when a blinding flash of light engulfs Meiís world in flames. Her mother, carrying her badly burned husband, leads Mei to the river and then the beach, where they mourn their lost city. Later, Mei and her mother see the devastation wreaked upon Hiroshima, and suffer through the bombís aftereffects, which, like the glass slivers slowly emerging from Meiís scalp, remain with them for years. It ends with a description of the annual observation of remembrance, and the hope that no nuclear bomb will ever be dropped again.

Toshiís magnificent watercolors capture both the liveliness of Hiroshima before the bomb and the blackened wasteland afterwards. She achieves a remarkable balance of realism and expressionism ó enough of the former to set the scene without gory details, and enough of the latter to evoke this tragedyís strong emotions. Although DVDs arenít always the best presentation of childrenís books, this one succeeds, partly due to the vibrancy of Toshiís paintings in any medium, and partly because of the accompanying documentary, Hellfire.

Hellfire documents the Marukisí artistic life and their struggles to paint their wartime experiences. Although neither was caught in Hiroshima or Nagasaki, they went to Hiroshima to help the survivors just days after the blast, and what they saw there haunted them forever. The Marukis sought to release these powerful emotions through their paintings, although it took several years for them to develop the courage and perspective to tackle the subject. Their first exhibition in 1950 was called "August 6," as the American occupation still forbade any mention of the atomic bomb. But everyone knew what they meant and, in part because the occupation also censored all images of the bombís devastation, flocked to see the mural.

The Marukis continued to paint murals of Hiroshima, eventually moving on to other wartime subjects, including the Japanese militaryís rape of Nanking, the mass civilian suicides compelled by Japanese forces in Okinawa, and the Nazi concentration camp atrocities. When their Hiroshima murals were first exhibited in the United States, the Marukis had to confront their own anti-American sentiments, and they found many Americans equally horrified by the atomic bombís destruction. It was this realization that led to their Nanking and Okinawa paintings, showing the barbaric acts perpetrated by their own people.

Tensions such as these ó between truth and propaganda, history and reality ó inform the Marukisí painting style along with their themes. Iri was trained in traditional, stylistic Japanese ink artwork, while Toshi focused on realistic, Western-style oil paintings. Combined in their murals, these media create the mixture of emotion and reality that gives their art such a distinctive depth. Iri begins with an ink drawing, which Toshi paints over; he returns to the work for ink washes, which muddies his wifeís colors. She paints over his ink again, which he washes over again, a cycle that lends the paintings a grittiness and reality that reflect the coupleís deep emotions. The film is framed by their recent work exploiting these techniques, a mural of Hell, its inhabitants and tortures.

Whether it is Hiroshima, Hell, or Bergen-Belsen, the real subject of the Marukiís work has always been the darker side of humanity, both familiar and frightening, something everyone has experienced but that few wish to face. Little doubt, then, that Toshi Maruki could create such a moving and beautiful book as Hiroshima No Pika, or that the two together could become such celebrated documentarians of human suffering. The Marukis point out that they include not only important World War II figures in their mural of Hell, but also their own self-portraits. Like many of us, the Marukis inhabit a Hell born of war and destruction and the worst of human emotions. Only two such talented artists could take this theme and create such uplifting results.