I have to confess I had never heard that along with the well-known kamikaze suicide air pilots, the Japanese military had also employed suicide divers, human land mines, suicide boats, and manned torpedoes as they desperately tried to reverse their worsening fortunes in the last months of World War II. It is the manned torpedo program that forms the backdrop for Hiroshi Uemoto’s poignant Kaiiki, although its poignancy is a subtle one not readily apparent upon first view.
This isn’t a historical or documentarian look at Imperial Japan’s suicide mission program or the soldiers tasked with carrying out their tragic missions, but rather a book of landscapes, or more precisely seascapes. Nor is the sea Uemoto photographs — specifically the Seto Inland Sea, where the Imperial Navy maintained three training sites for their manned torpedo program — a rough, violent one that could help illustrate such an emotionally fraught act as sacrificing your life for a stipulated greater good. The sea we’re presented with is a disturbingly calm one, where the trail of a speeding fishing boat is the most violent thing that can be seen.
The photographs contained in the book are all in the square format, and masterfully composed. The square aids in enforcing a defined stillness, although within the square the distances and scope of the seascape and shoreline are not inconsequential. There is an expansiveness — and a surprising amount of variety — to Uemoto’s framing. The approach is much like the Seto Inland Sea itself, which is semi-enclosed (see a map here) and in many ways more like a large lake than a sea. (The Japanese title 海域 kaiiki translates to “sea area” or “waters”, as in the expression “territorial waters”.)
Although as mentioned there is a lot of variety in how Uemoto presents the Sea, there is also in the editing of the book a deliberate repeating of certain vistas, scenes shot perhaps at slightly different angles, or with slightly different foreground or background elements, where we can’t be certain whether they are of the same place or not. This has the effect — like that of the square — of keeping us mentally boxed in. Not in a negative or aggressive way, but to say, let’s stay here for a while, perhaps there’s more here than meets the eye, perhaps these views have stories to tell us if only we can have the patience to look, and listen.
The photos are almost all dark and moody, some almost impenetrably so, and many feature heavy cloud cover or foggy haze. Many may have been shot at night, although this isn’t obvious. In lesser hands this darkness could easily push the viewer to frustration rather than wonder. (The publisher Sokyusha deserves kudos for the masterful printing of what couldn’t have been easy material to work with.) But here this darkness also draws us inward, compelling us to look further, make sure we haven’t missed anything, playing upon our natural inclination to suspect there must be things lurking in the shadows.
It’s not in the shadows, of course, but that which lurks under the sea’s surface, that contains the mystery, and the suspicion that all may not be well here. A more tangible guide to what underlies all these seascapes is the handful of non-seascapes that Uemoto includes in the book, say of tunnels that must have served some military use or the one shot of a torpedo, most likely one displayed in connection with the Kaiten Memorial Museum that is located on Otsushima island, the main training site for the kaiten program. These work well to hint that this is not simply a book of landscapes, that there is a larger purpose at work, while for the most part remaining subtle enough so as to not derail the overall mood of the book. (My one bone to pick with the book is the slight tonal misstep of including two photos of a group of figures walking through the tunnels. They are probably high school boys on a school excursion, but their school uniforms give them a slightly military air and the connection is a bit too obvious for my tastes.)
Uemoto provides an afterword (available, along with a map of the area, in English in addition to Japanese) that gives a brief background of the kaiten program. In this day and age of agenda-inflected buzzwords, “suicide bomber” is a hard concept to come to grips with without the corresponding invective, but if we separate the men who carried out their training and eventual suicidal missions from the authorities who dictated them, it is difficult to fathom the psychological turmoil these young men must have been going through as they looked out from the island out onto the sea. As Uemoto writes, “I could not possibly convey here just how taut their state of mind must have been at the time. Yet the color of the sea and the aspect of the island remain unchanged today.”
There is such an obviousness to the latter statement, and yet reading this I was taken aback a bit. Of course, but for minor details here and there, the sea we gaze upon through Uemoto’s lens is the same one these young men looked upon. It is the constant and steadfastly innocent party to that which man has chosen to do with what it wants to.
Uemoto also uses the afterword to tell us a bit of he came to photograph on Otsushima. He writes that it was one of the first places he went to when he took up photography in the mid-1970s as he looked for something to shoot, but that he was unprepared to reconcile his relatively comfortable upbringing with that of the young men who prepared to die there some 30 years earlier. Comparing himself at that time to them, he writes:
[…]I recall feeling pathetic for having come of age during Japan’s economic growth spurt (that is, an era of materialism and greed) and I departed the island as if to flee from it. Now, approaching my sixtieth year, I am finally visiting this island again, feeling that I may now be able to direct my camera at it.
One can only wish more young photographers would flee from their chosen subjects in such a manner, for the intervening years and maturity have helped Uemoto produce a measured and reflective work of subtlety and craft that, much like the usually placid water surface Uemoto has captured, invites us deeper, but doesn’t submerge us.
Kaiiki is available in the Japan Exposures book shop.