A nuclear test woke the legendary Godzilla, who rose from his long sleep beneath the Pacific to destroy Tokyo in a Japanese film made just nine years after atomic blasts shook Nagasaki and Hiroshima. In Japan at that time, the war’s aftershocks could be felt in ways both monstrous and subtle. During the conflict’s final days, in August 1945, Shomei Tomatsu was 15 years old; while his neighbors fled to underground shelters he hid in his bedroom, watching as American firebombs reduced his home city of Nagoya to flames and rubble.
Tomatsu’s sensibility was shaped during the hardscrabble years that followed, on the burnt plains of a society ridden with famine, thieving, American occupation, and black marketeering. In the 1950s, when he first picked up a camera, he photographed a gaping crater in the street; a blind, hobbling veteran led by a little girl through a makeshift city; the barely identifiable corpse of a drowned person; and masses of unemployed huddled and looking for work. One of his most celebrated images, from his 1959 series “Floods and the Japanese,” shows a boot, a cap, and a bottle, coated and floating in silvery mud, like the wreckage from some biblical apocalypse.
“Shomei Tomatsu: The Skin of the Nation,” the extraordinary and first comprehensive survey of his work now on view at Japan Society, reveals an artist reborn in the wake of destruction, a scavenger who even in boom years used his camera to gather evidence of Being against the Nothingness that haunted him. In a beautiful catalog essay, Leo Rubinfien (co-curator of the exhibition with Sandra Phillips) sees Tomatsu asking through his work what it meant to be Japanese “at a time when what it was supposed to have meant had been discredited at a temperature of five thousand degrees.” What was left of Japan after the ravages of fascism and a defeat that prophesied humanity’s end?
Tomatsu’s answer, it seems, was complex—partly because the defeat was also a liberation, but into a fleeting world of modernism and hybridity; and partly because photography, the medium through which he penned his oblique and poetic responses, only flourished in Japan after contact with the West. Tomatsu’s own aesthetic, which he honed in the post-war years while freelancing for the sophisticated Japanese equivalents of Life and Look, was deeply rooted in the dissonances and freewheeling energies of surrealism, Beat poetry, and the French new wave. Yet he married their bracing liberties to a moral passion for the document and a mournful humanism, and his great subject remained the sometimes disastrous, always fascinating intersection of East and West.
So in 1959 he set off on a “pilgrimage” (as he described it) lasting some 15 years to the main U.S. military installations in Japan, including the massive base on Okinawa. Tomatsu hovered on the perimeter, focusing on the shantytowns filled with pawnshops, souvenir stands, and bar girls, the imitation suburban lawns behind barbed-wire fences, and the bombers taking off for Southeast Asia. Who were these Americans, strange giants at once menacing and oddly casual, inspiring Okinawan boys to do the twist in deserted beachside cafés and women to arrange their hair in beehives?
Their influence could be seen almost everywhere: in the dark sunglasses and skinny black pants of Tokyo beatniks; in the anxious glance of an elegant Nagoya prostitute catering to American servicemen, who exhales two plumes of smoke like dragon fire; in the mixed-race children provoking stares in back alleys; and in the white-gloved majorettes parading down the very streets of Nagasaki.
In that city, already rebuilt by 1960 with astonishing rapidity, Tomatsu—on assignment for the Japan Council Against Atomic and Hydrogen Bombs—photographed the hibakusha, the survivors of the atomic explosion, many of whom led a kind of half-life, hiding their scars and psychic wounds in semi-seclusion. (He has continued this work through today.) These pictures—collected in his 1966 book 11:02 Nagasaki—are remarkable for their intimacy, discretion, and searing moral power. Some of the most eloquent enlist inanimate objects as mute witnesses to the catastrophe, like the wristwatch whose hands remain forever arrested at the moment of the blast (what happened to its wearer?), or the angel at Urakami Cathedral near the explosion’s center, whose shattered visage invokes the effaced values of both East and West.
Throughout the exultation of Tomatsu’s later work—his ecstatic portraits of wild bohemian nightlife in Shinjuku, Tokyo’s countercultural center; his coolly ironic depictions of a Japan in mid-economic miracle; his celebration of traces of traditional Japanese life surviving in remote island recesses; his studies of cherry blossoms falling on the hoods of cars and as backdrops for salarymen—runs this note of elegy. His illustrious follower, the photographer Daido Moriyama, described Tomatsu as among the déraciné (“rootless” in French), by which he meant “those who know more than they care to about things they cannot afford to believe in.” That weary skepticism is both a lonely place, and the secret source of art.