by Wes Ratliff
In 1992, Toshio Yoshida made a documentary that featured the Hiroshima steel factory among its installations, setting the stage for a daring fashion show in 1995, titled “Museum of Hiroshima and Nagasaki.” That exhibition, which toured Japan and some parts of the world, became Yoshida’s first film for TV. Twenty years later, his cinema-verite work “Toshiba Region 2” (1995), about small-town life in Hokkaido, generated a splash for its intriguing, haunting beauty. Yoshida’s impeccable, ultra-vivid photography serves as the film’s language, capturing viewers in the middle of landscapes and living rooms and mosques with unflinching immediacy.
Every time I see these films, their effect on me is like being trapped in a quiet film set while the music bleeds through the sound mix. Their grandeur becomes especially overwhelming when presented at one of the highlights of Tokyo’s festival calendar: the International Film Festival of Japan, a culture and commerce-intensive mega-event held across the city this year.
The top prize at this year’s festival went to a small European film, “Wild Dog,” about a woman’s battered emotions after she returns home from a car accident. The film’s director, Alexandre Moors, brought down the house by making his acceptance speech with a dialogue in French that neither he nor his translator could understand. The ironic part of this comedy is that he completed the speech in English, having studied linguistics at Cambridge.
A program of Yoshida’s films and an examination of how his photographs’ subtleties have influenced their makers are among the highlights at this year’s festival.
According to Toshio Yoshida, at the time of the Hiroshima and Nagasaki blasts, he was fascinated by technology. He was in his early 30s and the son of a businessman and a classical pianist; by 1948, his career began in floristry, his first post-graduation job. He worked across the Tokyo area, in cosmetics, where he became the first male designer of colognes. He made the ground-breaking poster art for Panasonic products; in 1967, the following year, he made the documentary “Children of Nagasaki and Hiroshima.” He traveled across the country from Tokyo to Nagasaki to make “The City of Song: East and West.”
In 1973, he returned to Hokkaido, where he explored the “hiroshima culture” that had come about after the atomic attacks. He returned to Hokkaido later, in 1993, to shoot “Toshiba Region 2,” which combined dramas, documentary and experimental film. According to Yoshida, he was nervous about his style and titled the film “Is the experience of occupation threatened?”
The director of a film called “Those Ordinary Small Birds of Nanchan Village” said to Yoshida that because of his work, “his own work became seen as a history.” Yoshida responded that it’s actually part of history, “but in a different sense, like I made history,” he told us.
How do we see Yoshida now? His work is composed of quiet emotion and dark shadows that draw you in while allowing you to see much more. His precision and craft are the things we appreciate most. He’s a master of that.
At 92, his work is like a revelation. So many of his images are depictions of innocence that it’s easy to wonder what the Hiroshima of the future would look like. The Fukushima plant no longer stands a watchful relic but has become a tragedy from which its city-center and the surrounding bay may never recover. The disaster underscores his point that we need to invest our voices and efforts into making peace and justice accessible.
Toshio Yoshida worked tirelessly in his lifetime, reflecting his midlife Japanese horizons and the aspirations of his community. In his final film, “Terima,” a justice-seeking video about the 1956 Yokkaichi bombings, his voice asks the viewer: “When it comes to personal responsibility, whose mess is it?” We don’t have the answers, but Yoshida’s works offer us hope, they teach us and they keep us compelled to solve the mystery.