A Place Called Hiroshima is a non-fiction, photographic journal of Hiroshima, Japan that outlines the lasting effects of the atomic bombing of the city, which occurred on 6th August 1945. It is written by Betty Jean Lifton with photographs taken by Eikoh Hosoe.
This is a powerful book, despite being short with few words. What instantly catches your attention are the monochromatic photographs of a city that is beautiful and people who are so full of life. When I initially opened up the pages at my local library, trying to decide if I wanted to check it out or not, this unusual thriving imagery caught me off guard. Like many, I grabbed it expecting graphic content highlighting the destructive catastrophe left in the wake of World War II. Instead, I saw tall towers, natural scenery, and young people participating in an energetic celebration of baseball. Those few introductory pages showed me a city that survived the absolutely worst thing to have happened in human history. Not only did it survive, it thrived.
I checked it out at once.
Told from the second-person perspective, it takes a bit of adjusting as you begin reading it. I noticed in previous reviews that a lot of people hated this narration style, but after some contemplation, I think the second-person telling is the perfect way to have written A Place Called Hiroshima. It speaks to the individual who chooses the book for the very same reasons that I did. When you hear the word “Hiroshima,” the association is almost always that of the A-bomb and/or the Second World War. YOU open it to see the decimation of a fallen nation. YOU want to learn more about what happened, more than likely to understand its impact, YOU are the curious one.
The author takes our curiosity and wields it in a poignant manner that’s akin to us walking through the streets and speaking to the survivors ourselves, right alongside with her. The result is something that is wholly uncomfortable, but breathtakingly candid and real. Combined with the black and white photographs that brings the era to life at my very fingertips, it also made for an intensely emotional and pensive reading experience. It haunted me, and it broke my heart.
Along with the photographs of what has become of the city, there are snapshots of the lives lost and the physical effects that the bomb had on the Japanese survivors. We see how there is massive deformity in some people from where their flesh was melted and remoulded, graphic depictions of discoloured liquefied spots all along their body, loss of limbs, even areas of the city where bodies were vaporised from the heat and radiation leaving behind nothing but a black outline. Combined with the deeply personal accounts of survivors—first, second, and third generations—the history of Hiroshima seems almost too damn surreal; a terrible nightmare of something out of a science-fiction novel. But the more you hear about the little girl who died ten years later after developing cancer from the radiation, or how there are third generation children being born with deformities or severe health complications, or how the only reason a woman survived the burns on her body was by applying the ashes of her dead family on her skin, the more you come to recognise that this is real, and it happened, and it should never be forgotten.
Even with all of this, the most important aspect of the book is the account of how Japanese survivors are working diligently with all of their energy to fight against the development of nuclear weapons. They fight for world peace and to end the use and study of nuclear arms because they know better than anyone else how it can destroy us. All of the psychological and emotional trauma that is deep-rooted from one survivor to the next, from one generation to the next, all leads up to one ultimate belief, that of world peace. The account of a retired professor who sits outside a memorial in the city every time he hears of nuclear testing stunned me to silence. He sits for an hour every time in quiet protest, hoping beyond hope that the world will listen before we destroy ourselves. Originally, he did this alone, but then other people began to join him; people from all walks of life with differing ethnicities, ages, faiths, etc.; all vying for peace so that another catastrophe like this does not happen.
To begin with—
This place you’ve come to see called Hiroshima is no one place.
There are many places, each bearing that name.
One is located in the past.
One in the present.
One in the future.
The legendary place that you seek is not located on a map.
It is a state of mind.
A Place Called Hiroshima is a profound book and one that, I strongly believe, should be read by everyone. It is straightforward and disturbing, but it is truth and a terrible lesson from history. The author and photographer do an excellent job of capturing the Hiroshima from its decimation to its rebirth as a thriving city, while never allowing the reader to forget the sacrifices and devastating losses it incurred. As I mentioned earlier, it is a truly powerful book.