Tuesday, May 15, 2018

The Marukis' Antiwar Paintings: A Lesson in Collaboration

Toshi and Iri Maruki

Yesterday I began profiling a list of films about the atomic bombing of Hiroshima.

Today I'm continuing with thoughts on one of those films: Hellfire - Journey from Hiroshima (Michael Camerini, 1986).

Hellfire - Journey from Hiroshima is a beautiful portrait, above all, of collaboration. In it, we meet the husband-and-wife team, Iri Maruki (1901-1995) and Toshi Maruki (1912-2000). I have long been an admirer of their Hiroshima panels, and of Toshi Maruki's book for children, Hiroshima no Pika (The Flash of Hiroshima). But I wasn't expecting to be as moved as I was by the story of how these two artists work together.

One of the reasons I loved Hellfire - Journey from Hiroshima is that it features long sequences of Iri and Toshi Maruki sharing a studio, working to complete their wall-sized artworks. Iri works standing, tracing figures onto the paper spread across the floor, using a brush with a long extension handle. Iri kneels, adding ink washes with a broad sweep.

The Marukis were trained in different styles -- traditional, expressionist, water-based ink vs. modern, realist, oil -- and in the film we get to see some of the ways they learned to synthesize their gifts and complement each other, and to do so without working at cross-purposes. We learn in the film that their shared vision sustained the Marukis, and that they concluded that, "If two people are alike, even oil and water will mix." What makes the film particularly interesting, however, is that in it the Marukis also tell us, very candidly, that they had to do a lot of hard experimentation, painting and re-painting over each other's work, before they found the right blend. Their successful collaboration came about despite a fair dose of "selfishness . . . stubbornness . . . dissatisfaction . . . ."

The film also describes another aspect of the Marukis' collaboration that I found instructive: their annual rhythm of devoting three seasons of the year to their respective art, and one season of the year (e.g. winter) to work together on a collaborative project.

from the Marukis' Hiroshima panels

The Marukis spent decades creating and promoting their panels documenting the terrors of war - Hiroshima, the Rape of Nanking, the Holocaust, and the atrocities on Okinawa. They did a lot of thinking about war and other types of violence, like the violence we do to our environment. "At a deep level, the violence we do in war and the violence we do in peace are the same," they say in the film.

Near the end of the film, speaking about their series of Hell panels, Toshi says that she and Iri came to understand that hell is not just a place for the great evildoers of history, like Hitler, but includes a very wide circle of people indeed. Ultimately, she concludes:

We are in hell
because we have been unable
to prevent war.

If all life on earth perishes
in a nuclear war,
no one will be saved;
we will all be responsible.

This brief film and the example of the Marukis is a powerful tool for all of us seeking inspiration for our collaboration with like-minded people to become able to prevent war, and to make sure life on earth doesn't perish in a nuclear war.

The story of the Marukis is also told in a book by one of the film's producers, the scholar John Dower: Hiroshima Murals: The Art of Iri Maruki and Toshi Maruki.

An animated video version of Hiroshima no Pika is available for viewing on Kanopy.

See also: more films and resources about the atomic bombing of Hiroshima.

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