The Maruki Gallery is a small art gallery outside of Tokyo. Iri and Toshi Maruki were a married couple, both artists. The grounds of the gallery include both their home and an exhibition of their work. The major exhibit is a collection of fifteen wall-sized paintings on folding screens of the experiences of those in Hiroshima on August 6, 1945. From 1950 to 1982 they labored over The Hiroshima Screens.
The Marukis traveled to the smoldering city a few days after the bombing to search for missing relatives. The Hiroshima Screens are painted in black, white, gray, and red going through the experiences of that fateful day. Their paintings capture the horror, the disorientation, the anguish of the people of Hiroshima. Dying lovers embrace and mothers hold their dead children. Victims have their skin shredding off. The horrors of war, especially the bombing of civilians, are portrayed in a stark and gripping way. The titles of some of the screens are evocative of the images presented: Ghosts, Fire, Water, Atomic Desert, Mother and Child. Though words fall short of capturing these terrible events, each screen has poetic reflections by the Murukis.
The 15th panel is titled Nagasaki about the dropping of the second atomic bomb upon that city. That painting is on permanent exhibition at the Nagasaki International Cultural Hall.
The Hiroshima Panels are not just about the suffering of the Japanese civilians. They move into a universal anti-war and anti-nuclear weapons theme. One panel depicts the crows feasting on the piles of Korean dead left unburied. Some 30,000 Korean slave laborers were in Hiroshima at the time of the bombing, and around 20,000 perished. The Japanese responding to the bombing did not bury the Korean dead but left their bodies in piles. The Japanese racism has continued even in the establishment of the peace park. Koreans who wanted to raise a memorial to the Korean victims were not allowed to have it included in the peace park, so the memorial is just across a river, unmarked on all the tourist maps.
Another panel portrayed the fate of American POW’s who survived the bombing only to be torn limb from limb by their enraged captors. The Marukis’ poetic comment beside their depiction said, “Our hands tremble as we paint.” Even in their personal sorrow for the horrors inflicted upon their own people, the Marukis were able to capture the horrors perpetrated even on the enemy. Such empathy as expressed in their art is part of the path to hope and healing.
In an adjacent room to The Hiroshima Panels is another large painting on screens. The Rape of Nanjing recalls the terrible three-day orgy of violence where 300,000 Chinese people were slaughtered by Japanese soldiers. Besides showing the suffering on their own sides the Marukis courageously explored the suffering caused by their own nation and its complicity in acts of evil.
The Marukis did not just give a message of horror but also encouraged actions of hope. Their painting Petition X, completed in 1955, recalls a movement started by Tokyo housewives to collect signatures to protest nuclear weapons testing. In the panel, a long line of civilians from all walks of life stand patiently in line to sign the petition. In the accompanying text, the artists note that “for the first time, the people of Japan asserted themselves with a silent cry—a voice that echoed through the land—a call for peace.”
In 1995 the Marukis were nominated for the Nobel Peace Prize. A 1987 documentary film of their work, Hellfire: A Journey from Hiroshima, was nominated for an Academy Award. In 1953 after the first six panels had been completed Japanese musician Masao Ohki composed his Fifth Symphony with six movements to match The Hiroshima Panels. Click here to listen to Ohki’s Fifth Symphony with visuals from The Hiroshima Panels.