Newspaper article The Christian Science Monitor

Past the Ruins of Postwar Japan

Newspaper article The Christian Science Monitor

Past the Ruins of Postwar Japan

Article excerpt

Shomei Tomatsu was 15 years old in 1945, the year Japan was devastated by war. That spring, firebombing incinerated Tokyo, and later the country's other major cities, including his home of Nagoya. The atomic attacks on Hiroshima and Nagasaki followed. The Japanese coined a new term to encompass the destruction: yakinohara, "burnt plains."

In "Shomei Tomatsu: Skin of a Nation," the extraordinary retrospective now at the Japan Society here, the photographer observes, "Ruins are the basic image of postwar Japan." Our notion of that country as the phoenix-like dynamo of Honda, Sony, and Pokemon bears little relation to the land of psychic wounds Tomatsu has witnessed in a career spanning more than 50 years. His photographs reveal a nation scarred by its loss of history, identity, and soul.

In the 1950s and '60s, Tomatsu, often working for mass- circulation magazines, redefined photography into a potent blend of reportage, Surrealist theater, and Haiku-like introspection. He has long been recognized as Japan's most important postwar photographer, yet the 260 images on view, in both black and white and color, represent the first major exhibition of his pictures in the United States.

As gallery upon gallery unfolds, the exhibition reveals a photographic artist of astonishing strength. Tomatsu's earliest work documents the period of reconstruction. A 1951 image shows a disabled veteran dazed and uncertain as he walks on the fringe of a rebuilt town, steadying himself with a walking stick and being led by a small girl. The picture stands in stark contrast to American photography of the same era, which sought out moments of heightened visual climax. Here, the drama is inward and metaphoric, almost nonchalantly representing the once-great Japan as a depleted figure utterly dependent on whatever small hand is offered.

In the 1960s, Tomatsu turned his lens on American military bases and servicemen in Okinowa. The images, from an extended series titled "Chewing Gum and Chocolates," depict the American presence as an infestation of sinister values, the occupation of a foreign power offering puny tokens of friendship and exporting spiritual decadence. …

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