Behind Things Left Behind: Ishiuchi Miyako

Fig. 1.jpg

The film Things Left Behind begins in darkness. At the sound of a woman’s deliberate exhale, the darkness fades, revealing an X-ray image riddled with chalky veins. As the image gently rises, we recognize a full skirt, tucked into a waistband. Each exhale brings more light and color to the image, which is now the bodice and sleeves of a translucent dress. At the pluck of a mandolin, a mist sweeps over the frock, morphing into diaphanous silk, leisurely rippling in the soft light. The title, Things Left Behind, emerges from its folds. The silken fabric dissolves as a white silk blouse with black polka dots drifts down, bathed in light, its fragile beauty marred by brown stains. A boy’s beige jacket with bright red buttons appears, bloodstains on its belly and wrists. A man’s voice reacts, “I wonder who wore this. And I wonder how he lived his life.” As a single tattered boot looms into view, a woman’s voice responds, “I wonder if it had shoelaces and what happened to them.”.

In my new documentary, Things Left Behind, I explore the transformative power of “ひろしま hiroshima,” the first major international art exhibition devoted to the atomic bomb, shown at the Museum of Anthropology in Vancouver, Canada, from October 2011 to February 2012. The exhibition presented the eponymous photographic series by the renowned Japanese photographer Ishiuchi Miyako (b. 1947) in forty-eight color prints of clothing and personal effects which once belonged to some of the 140,000 people estimated to have been doomed by the bomb. To create the series, Ishiuchi brought the garments—donated by bereaved families over the decades, yet and poignantly vivid today—out of permanent storage at the Hiroshima Peace Memorial archive and photographed them in the light, to trace the spirits of those who once wore them. A wall text she wrote for the exhibit encapsulates her personal, intuitive approach to the forbidding subject matter:

Fig. 2.jpg

Gently pressing out the creases on a blouse long folded up, I bring it into the light of the sun shining through a window. For an instant, the polka dots and floral patterns shimmer and the woman who once wore it rises.

I had briefly introduced Ishiuchi’s “ひろしま” photographs in my previous film, ANPO: Art X War (which charts Japanese contemporary art and artists’ reactions to the extended US military presence there) and was aware of her desire to exhibit the photographs abroad. Though the photographs have been displayed in eight Japanese museums and were awarded the coveted Mainichi Art Award in 2009, her long-term objective is for them to travel the world, especially North America. When ANPO: Art X War was invited to the 2010 Vancouver film festival, I was introduced to Anthony Shelton, the director of the Museum of Anthropology (MOA) at the University of British Columbia. When I showed him Ishiuchi’s ひろしまphoto book (Shūeisha 2008), he became increasingly animated as he recalled the impact drawings by atomic bomb survivors he had seen as a teenager had made on him. He also explained that fortuitously, an exhibition planned for the fall and winter of 2011 had recently been cancelled and he was looking for another that fit the museum’s mission: To inspire understanding of and respect for world arts and cultures.

At the time, I had no idea that I was going to launch a new film. But when I met with Yamazaki Yutaka, my cinematographer for ANPO: Art X War, late in 2010, after MOA had agreed to host ひろしま, I asked him if he thought the historic exhibition and Ishiuchi’s singular approach to the subject would make a film. Yamazaki quickly agreed and contacted the veteran producer, Hashimoto Yoshiko, who secured funding from the Japanese national broadcaster, NHK, to produce a film along with a two-part TV special, to be broadcast in August, 2012.

I have written in these pages before of my personal Hiroshima dilemma, stemming from my childhood in western Japan, where my American missionary parents sent me to Japanese public schools in the 1960s and 1970s (“ The Lost Art of Resistance,” Impressions 33 [2012]: 31–41). I was in the fourth grade—the only American in my class—when our teacher wrote the words “America” and “Atomic Bomb” in white chalk on the blackboard, and we opened our textbooks to the chapter titled “The Defeat.” All forty Japanese children turned around to stare at me. The moment is seared into my memory, more as an emotion than an image; although I no longer remember the shape of my wooden school desk, I can still trace the exact contours of my sense of entrapment. My country had done something unforgivable and I had to take responsibility for it, all by myself. I desperately wanted to dig a hole under my desk, to escape my classmates’ mute disbelief and never have to face them again.

That traumatic memory and my inchoate sense of complicity in the atomic destruction of Hiroshima prevented me from visiting that city until 2005, when I traveled there with producers from NHK and the National Geographic Channel, who were considering the first ever U.S.–Japan co-production about the subject. The production fizzled, but I will always remember approaching the city by plane. Peering out over the mountainous scenery as we approached Hiroshima airport, I realized with a jolt that this was more or less the same view that Colonel Paul W. Tibbets Jr. must have had in the moments before releasing his catastrophic cargo in August of 1945. After we landed, the lead National Geographic Channel producer shared how in the waning days of World War II, both her father and her uncle had been stationed as American soldiers on Tinian, the island from which the Enola Gay had been launched. She confessed that she had always wondered if their deaths in their early forties were somehow related to the bomb’s radiation.

When I returned to Hiroshima in 2010, it was on a ten-city advance publicity tour for ANPO: Art X War, prior to its Japanese theatrical release. This time, we traveled by train. I had no idea what to expect at the preview screening, but I hardly anticipated the sold-out crowd and its enthusiastic welcome. After the screening, the line of people waiting to have me autograph the pamphlet for my film snaked through the lobby as many quietly thanked me for making it. One man confided how he had spent six months in jail after being arrested for demonstrating against American bases in the 1960s. The next morning, the theater held a press conference for the local press, even preparing a large banner that read: “Go, director Linda! You accomplished what no Japanese could.” I was stunned by their frank admiration but more so by the irony that it was the residents of the very place I had dreaded so long—those who had kept memories of that war closest to their hearts—who were now unabashedly embracing me and my film. As I left the city behind me, I searched my heart for that familiar gash but found that the citizens of Hiroshima had mended it.

I began filming Things Left Behind in March of 2011, by fate or chance, a scant ten days after the great earthquake rocked northern Japan and a millennial tsunami reduced many of its cities to rubble reminiscent of the aftermath of World War II. My film crew and I accompanied Ishiuchi to Hiroshima, where she was returning to photograph donations from the previous year, specifically for the MOA exhibition. Although she had originally been commissioned by Shūeisha in 2007 to photograph Hiroshima for a photo book, she has since taken the project on as her own art, returning annually, as though on pilgrimage, to photograph newly donated objects. Coordinating with the museum’s curator, Shimomura Mari, Ishiuchi had pre-selected, among others, a young boy’s immaculate silk kimono, a tattered pair of brown boots, and a traditional Japanese doll housed in a tall glass case. Shimomura rolled a cart laden with the meticulously wrapped artifacts out of the climate-controlled archival storage. “The families who donate their loved ones’ personal effects don’t really want to let them go,” she explained, “they want to keep them close, because they embody the person who died. But they feel a responsibility to ensure that no one has to endure what their loved ones went through. They donate them to the museum so the objects can tell their stories.”

Fig. 4.jpg
Fig. 3.jpg

Ishiuchi began with the boy’s kimono, asking the curator to arrange it on tracing paper she had placed on the floor at the end of a long hallway on the museum’s second floor, suffused with light streaming in through the glass wall. As Ishiuchi straddled the kimono with her hand-held 35mm camera angling for the perfect image, the curator quietly related how the boy had died in the bomb at thirteen, but that his bereaved mother had clung to the robe decades after his passing, inconsolable at the loss of her entire family. Ishiuchi was sympathetic to the story but clarified, “I can’t photograph the past. I can only photograph what happens in the moment I encounter this particular object, my most personal reactions, what I feel and see.”

Fig. 5.jpg

Finished with the boy’s kimono, Ishiuchi asked Shimomura to remove the Japanese doll from its glass case. As the curator gently extricated the doll, the height of a small girl, Ishiuchi exclaimed, “You’re so big, sweetie.” Together, they examined the doll, clad in a beautiful floral-patterned kimono tied with a bright red sash, and discovered that her feet were wrapped in brown tissue brittle with age. “Probably no one ever opened it,” Shimomura surmised. As the curator delicately unwrapped the old paper, Ishiuchi whispered, “Here come her feet. Such cute feet. I’ll shoot her feet for her.” Shimomura told us, “The doll was donated by the daughter of the woman who owned it. She was evacuated to the countryside as a baby, but her mother died in the bomb. It’s the only memory she has of her mother.” Ishiuchi photographed the doll laid out on a table and then asked the curator to prop it up. After photographing it from several angles, she revealed, “These objects come out from the dark storage room, where they’ve been folded up. When I spread them out and they meet the natural light, I really feel something come back to life. It’s not my camera,” she insists. “It’s my emotions that create these images.”

Fig. 6.jpg

Ishiuchi’s intuitive approach to the Hiroshima relics began in 2000, when her mother passed away unexpectedly. Ishiuchi had never gotten along with her, and had despaired after her sudden passing, because she could no longer reconcile with her in person. Her artistic response, born of anguish, was to tape her mother’s lace-trimmed lingerie against the sunlight filtering through the sliding glass doors leading to her garden and photograph them. The resulting series, Mother’s, was selected for exhibition in the Japanese Pavilion in the 2005 Venice Biennale. Ishiuchi recalls, “What I experienced exhibiting my Mother’s series in Venice, is that my mother moved on. She left me behind. I saw so many women in the exhibition hall crying at my photographs. That’s when I realized she wasn’t mine anymore. She belonged to everyone.” The Shūeisha editor who commissioned Ishiuchi’s Hiroshima photographs had likewise been deeply affected by her mother’s eerie presence in photographs of objects we rationally understand to be inanimate.

Ishiuchi recalls that when Shūeisha had initially contacted her, she had been reluctant to wade into Hiroshima’s oft-photographed terrain. She was apprehensive that her work would remain mired in the “pro-peace, anti-war” message fused with its very name. (It is interesting to me that in Japanese, Hiroshima, the nuclear landmark, is written in katakana ヒロシマ, to highlight its internationality, but Ishiuchi deliberately chose hiragana ひろしまfor her book and series title, to distance it from the weight of that history.) She gradually overcame her initial trepidations and travelled there for the first time in 2007. The first thing she saw was the iconic Hiroshima dome near Ground Zero and was relieved that she found it “unexpectedly charming.” The building and its signature, barbed dome, once Hiroshima’s Industrial Promotion Hall, are still typically photographed against the sky from a low angle, suggesting a commanding structure. In fact, the four-story building is dwarfed today by the city’s multiple high-rises, which loom over the modest structure.

Fig. 7.jpg
Fig. 8.jpg

Emboldened by her reaction to that emblematic edifice, she decided to explore the Peace Memorial archives. There, among some nineteen thousand donated and collected artifacts, she was surprised to discover dresses and blouses still stylish, decades after those who had worn them perished. Though the personal effects donated in recent decades are well documented with donors’ names and stories of how and when those who wore them passed away, two items further liberated her artistic imagination. Because these dresses had been donated before documentation began, they “belonged to no one and I decided that I could have been wearing them that day, if I had been alive. So, at the risk of disrespecting the dead, I emotionally claimed them as my own.” They remain iconic images in her “Hiroshima” series; the floral-patterned pink dress, the shoulder straps arranged to suggest how it might have experienced the atomic blast, and the dark coatdress which Ishiuchi has dubbed the “Comme des Garçons” dress. That garment, laid out over the large light-box Ishiuchi fabricated for the first batch of photographs, is obviously an item of clothing, but its luminous gaping holes evoke the savage power of the atomic bomb together with the spirit of its former inhabitant. Both images were featured in the Vancouver exhibition, but the uncanny ethereality of “Comme des Garçons” lured many viewers, who commented on its ghostly familiarity.

Ishiuchi deliberately exhibits the “Hiroshima” photographs without any identifying captions, as her intention is not to “document” the objects but to “resurrect them into beauty.” In Vancouver, I asked the most obviously engaged visitors to select a favorite and stand beside it, before explaining on camera the reasons for their choices. I had stumbled onto this directorial strategy when prior to filming, I showed “Comme des Garçons” to a young American, whose parents had emigrated from El Salvador. As soon as she saw it, she responded, “When I visited San Salvador with my parents, we went to the Museum of Salvadoran Martyrs, which displays the bloodstained clothes worn by the Jesuit priests massacred in 1989. This photograph reminds me of them.” From her insight, I understood that Ishiuchi’s light-charged, evocative Hiroshima images are capable of refracting the viewer’s gaze, pointing them beyond Hiroshima, towards her or his individual memories and experiences.

Empowered by this insight, I interviewed a range of Canadian and international visitors to the exhibition, and found that the text-less photographs mutely invited them to imagine or divulge a narrative, unlocking a wealth of secrets and memories from those who encountered them. From Japanese Canadians recalling the misery and humiliation of their parents’ wartime relocation, to young Spaniards evoking the enduring impact of their Civil War, to a young Korean who addressed the tragedy of the Japanese occupation of his country, the images seemed to liberate their imaginations. Which is precisely Ishiuchi’s purpose: “To liberate Hiroshima from the weight of its history.” A thoughtful Japanese visitor in his early fifties offered, “Seeing this exhibit, you can glimpse how much they were enjoying life, until just before they died. I feel this exhibit will finally let those who died rest in peace.”

Fig. 9.jpg

Things Left Behind weaves the photographs, Ishiuchi’s intuitive approach and her images’ impact on visitors into a cinematic reverie about art’s potential to access and recast historical memory. The intent of the film is to reimagine our collective perception of Hiroshima, too long a prisoner of terrifying archival footage and black-and-white photographs. Through the film, Ishiuchi’s images transport Hiroshima into the present so we can imagine ourselves in their fashionable clothes, shoes and watches, while unknowingly imperiled by catastrophe.