Splitting Atomic Symbolism: Words, Images, and Sounds of a Nuclear World

Last week, I attended the “Hiroshima – Nagasaki – Fukushima – Articulations of the Nuclear. The Case of Japan” Conference at the University of Cologne. It was a fabulous conference and I will do a further post about it. In this post I will say a bit about my presentation. It is planned that a publication featuring mine and other papers will come out in 2023, so I will post a link to that in due course.

Me (standing at the podium on the left hand side) presenting my paper. Photo by Lauren Constance.

The paper brought together three strands of my research interests as the following slide – which used a version of a Venn diagram – shows.

Having discussed a range of issues relating to symbolism, including linking to my work on contents tourism and transportation in Japan (see Contents Tourism in Plane Sight), and then discussing my project on Visual Packaging Culture, of which this paper and the research related to it is a key component, the paper then began to link further to the specific Japanese case, starting off with me saying that I think the first I learnt of the Hiroshima atomic bomb was its inclusion in the “USS Indianapolis speech” in Jaws (see also “The Shark is Broken” Review: One of the Greatest Movies spawns One of the Greatest Plays)

As can be seen in the introductory slide above, part of my research has an autoethnographic element. You can also see in the small text of that slide above how the background to the main slides was based on one of the (many) versions of “Two Tribes” (my favourite song) by Frankie Goes To Hollywood (see Frankie Fans Say for details about a book I am writing in relation to them and their fans). My presentation had also started with the “Air Attacked Warning” from another version of “Two Tribes” and finished with the chilling “Last Words” too. But I also managed to get a slide about “Two Tribes” and how it probably sparked my interested in nuclear weapons.

My interest in nuclear weapons during my teenage years extended to reading many books…

I also discussed the films which I watched – Special Bulletin, The Day After, and Threads (as I have also discussed in the post In the Shadow of the Mushroom Cloud: 75 Years since the Atomic Bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki).

I then talked about my experiences of visiting Hiroshima for the first time, meeting a hibakusha, visiting Hiroshima and Nagasaki over the years, the Daigo Fukuryumaru Exhibition Hall, and also bringing in the context of the issues more internationally through my experiences during a trip to Kyiv in 1998 (see Reflections on Ukraine – My Visit in 1998 (4))

The discussion then began to turn to discussing more about how the image of the mushroom cloud is used. This included talking about it appearing in art – including the following picture which I had commissioned (see also Mushroom Cloud Art).

I then went on to discuss the use of the Nagasaki mushroom cloud in a picture that’s in an office that appears in the programme The West Wing, while also pointing out how the image is mistakenly used on the front cover of the DVD of the BBC docu-drama Hiroshima.

This then developed into further discussion about the usage of the mushroom cloud image and the story about a Japanese exchange student’s experience at Richland High School (Washington, USA) in 2019.

The paper then built on this by showing how even Google searches – using both Google.com and Google.co.jp – can bring up very different results depending on the version you use and the language you use (I do something similar in relation to the “Yakuza” in my teaching and in the book Japan: The Basics). The following slide is one of the ones that I showed, here with the two different searches for the word “Hiroshima” (it was pointed out in a further slide the difference if searching for “Hiroshima” using the name written in katakana rather than kanji).

Later, the paper changed approach again, by focussing on movies and TV programmes, looking at how they handle nuclear explosions. This was a natural development for my research as it builds upon the work I have done on disaster movies (see, for example, Disaster Narratives by Design: Is Japan Different? and Japanese Disaster Narratives of the Early Twenty-First Century: Continuity and Change)

To date I have studied 48 movies and TV programmes (others were looked at, but ultimately not kept in the data set). The research is very much work in progress, but a number of possible findings are developing. First of these, is the variance in view point depending on whether the bomb is done to others (as the top-down view of Hiroshima and Nagasaki tend to be from the planes on 6 and 9 August 1945). This can be seen, for example, in Dr Strangelove.

This was compared with the closer, looking up view (to the extent that the cloud is not always visible at all), when the viewpoint is that of victim, as is seen in Hadashi-no-Gen, which also includes a different view of the Hiroshima cloud, which is based on another photograph of the event and which is less mushroom-like.

These variations in views were found across many of the narratives studied. The paper also looked at how both the ‘pika’ (flash) and ‘don’ (explosive sound, and related pressure waves) are handled. More chillingly, and starting to also consider one of the “so what?” elements of the research, the paper pointed out how, in some narratives, the atomic bomb comes to be trivialised and down-played in terms of its impact. This is seen in True Lies, for example, where the explosion is referred to as “show time”. For this to happen suggests that the “No More Hiroshimas” campaign is failing and in turn that undermines the importance of ensuring that no nuclear devices are ever used on a human population ever again.

In drawing the paper to a conclusion, as well as reiterating the importance of studying and understanding how the image of nuclear explosions are used and what the implications are, I asked for further help in identifying further movies and TV programmes to study. I continue to provide an up-to-date list of those included – see Nuclear Imagery and Looking for Movies and TV Programmes. If you have a chance, please let me know if you spot any missing – I will be adding some soon thanks to the very useful discussion that followed my paper that also included comments on other things to consider in the paper going forward.

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