Friday, March 25, 2011

Images of Japan

The celebrated woodblock print of The Great Wave off Kanagawa by Hokusai [1760-1849] evokes, for many westerners, a tidal wave. Even Mount Fuji, in the distant background, appears to be belittled by the proportions of the swell.

[Click the image to access a diaporama of Hokusai's work.]

But then we distinguish the presence of a boat in the foreground, and probably others further back. And we realize that our viewpoint has been tricked by distance distortion. The wave, while grandiose, is nevertheless quite ordinary… no greater than the so-called breakers that I used to confront regularly, as a child, when I was body-surfing at Yamba in Australia. It is hardly a tidal wave of the kind that hit Japan recently, leaving scenes of devastation.

[Click the image to access an article on this place.]

The tidal wave that hit the seafront at Ofunato perched that boat some 20 meters up in the air, on a sea of debris. Meanwhile, magazines in France and elsewhere have resorted to another striking image to symbolize devastated Japan: that of a young woman clad in a pale orange blanket, holding a shopping bag.

Why has this simple but moving image caught the attention of so many cover designers and graphic artists? I have the impression that a poet could write a book in attempting to answer that question. In a nutshell, the photo places the tender beauty of a fragile creature against a backdrop of savage destruction. And we have the impression that the tangled elements of the destroyed scene belonged to the society of the young woman. A vegetal presence might be that of a pot plant. Vague movements in the background indicate that other individuals are already determined to set the ball rolling once again, even at the height of this moment of great destruction. In the photo, around the young woman protected momentarily by her blanket, all is calm. The calm after the storm. But the anguish in her regard hints that it might be the calm before further storms. We realize that the "storms" in question are in fact those of our everyday existence and survival on the planet Earth.

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