TOKYO -- Nguyen Thi Lan Phuong, a third-year Vietnamese student at Underwood International College of Yonsei University in South Korea, has won The Mainichi's 2018 international essay contest on "The Face of Jizo," a play by the late author Hisashi Inoue themed on the atomic bombing of Hiroshima.
Rose Hannah Adams, a third-year student at Stanford University of the United States, won second prize in the contest, while Haruka Hanada, a second-year student at Kaiyo Academy middle school in central Japan's Aichi Prefecture, came third.
In the contest, participants were asked to write an essay of up to 1,000 words in English about the play. Beatrice Fihn, executive director of the International Campaign to Abolish Nuclear Weapons (ICAN), encouraged youths to take action toward a world free of nuclear weapons by using the play and the contest to spark their imagination and motivation.
The winners were selected by a panel of judges comprising writer and film director Roger Pulvers, who translated the play into English; former Hiroshima Mayor Tadatoshi Akiba; and The Mainichi's Editor in Chief Hiroaki Wada. Organized by The Mainichi and the Mainichi Shimbun's Hiroshima Bureau, the contest was made possible with permission from Pulvers and Inoue's wife Yuri to make the English translation available online for contestants. Kyoto University of International Studies and Sophia University sponsored the event.
Comments by Pulvers and Akiba, and the winning essay, are published below.
First Prize: Nguyen Thi Lan Phuong
This is a detailed and astute account of the psyche of the characters and how it illustrates the themes that Inoue presents to us. The essay gives us a lucid and positive account of the play's import to people today and describes how the traumas of the past affect humans for generations to come. A brilliant and original essay. (Pulvers)
Nguyen Thi Lan Phuong's description of the history of the Human Race captured my imagination. Her assessment of the science and technology is good in that we are at a crucial stage where this has become a truly serious and yet not very well understood agenda for humanity. Her analysis of the play is structurally sound and solid. Her ability to interweave Hisashi Inoue's intentions with the story itself was excellent. (Akiba)
Second Prize: Rose Hannah Adams
The author takes as her point of departure a personal encounter with a disfigured statue of Jizo and convincingly relates her inner feelings to the themes in the play. By choosing to link the objects transformed by the atomic blast to the play's characters, she enters into their world and illuminates their messages to the future. An excellent and a beautifully configured essay. (Pulvers)
Rose Adams combines her deep understanding of the Jizo figure in Japanese culture with her experience in Hiroshima and Miyajima to point out how creatively Hisashi Inoue used "objects" to remind us of reality and truth. Her last sentence wraps up the whole matter eloquently: We have seen the face of Jizo. (Akiba)
Third Prize: Haruka Hanada
Haruka Hanada read the play very accurately and digested various components that make the play excellent. However, what struck me most was the outpouring of his emotions when he makes several points about the importance of the play. I was moved by the fact that he was so carried away that he even forgot to hit the enter key as he was writing the essay. (Akiba)
This is a very cogently written essay that presents both descriptions of the main characters' motivations and an analysis of the thematic thrust of the play. It also poses questions to us, compelling us to confront the awful reality of the nuclear holocaust and to consider how our own sense of morality might be brought to bear to prevent one in the future. A passionate and articulate piece from a young writer. (Pulvers)
Winning essay by Nguyen Thi Lan Phuong
Overcoming Death and Trauma in the Nuclear Age: The Power of Memory and Dialogue in The Face of Jizo
There are only two most important events in the history of the Human Race: The moment the savage ape evolved into the Man (with the capital M) capable of reason and language to write his species' history on the face of earth and the artificial birth of the atomic bomb capable of wiping out the entire existence of Man and Man kind's history. Therefore, August 6, 1945 not only marks the immediate death of 146,000 innocent souls of Hiroshima but also signals a symbolic death of the human race. As survivors whose bodies and minds encountered this death in the most intimate sense, the hibakusha depicted in the figure of Mitsue, carry within themselves an impossible history that was burned in the flame of August 6 yet continually returns in the traumatic haunting of Takezo on his daughter's life. While most hibakusha's testimonies and memoirs focus on the terror and destruction at the moment of the explosion, Inoue Hisashi masterfully uses the theatrical medium of a comical play to reveal the nature of the atomic trauma, its mechanism and imagines a humanistic way to truly overcome trauma and death.
To begin with, the first act of play symbolically relives the traumatic atomic experience with the visual representation of lighting and camera flashes. Cleverly, Inoue Hisashi paints a post-Hiroshima world where every realms of life from nature to the artificial products carry the memory of death. Survived physically yet psychologically trapped in a world tainted by death, many hibakusha develops defense mechanisms such as oblivion and fantasy to relieve their pain. For instance, Mitsue initially chooses to forget, not to talk about the bomb and goes as far as burning the things that can reminds her of Takezo. However, forgetting is as pointless as hiding from lighting under a cushion since the memory she tried to suppress sublimates into the fantasy of living with her father's ghost. Therefore, the logic of the play suggests the incomprehensible nature of the atomic trauma and its mechanism of belated repetition that refuses interpretation or any attempt to fully understand what happened. By introducing the mediums of healing as Kinoshita the artifact collector and Takezo the ghost, Inoue Hisashi argues that one cannot overcome trauma by forgetting or indulging in fantasy but one should bravely embrace the trauma memory through narrative attempt and constructive relationship with other people.
Coming from outside of the physical Hiroshima city devastated by the bomb, Kinoshita slips into Mitsue's world and introduces to her the power of artifacts to evoke and ascribe meaning into previously incomprehensible memories. Even though she burned her father's belongings and live in a fantasy, Mitsue cannot erase the bomb from her consciousness because her body itself is inscribed with the effect of radiation. Thus, this physical survival drives Mitsue into an existential guilt that prevents her from ever experiencing happiness. This psychological crisis is common among hibakusha and especially atomic maidens as they cannot explain their "meaningless" survival in relation to most family members and friends' death yet cannot build a new family due to the risk of passing down genetic radiation defects. However, influenced by Kinoshita and Takezo suggestion to teach children with the bomb artifacts, Mitsuko starts to see these remnants as important legacies that can be passed on to the next generation. Thus, just as the roof tile and the broken window glass, Mitsue's survival is a heroic site of truth entrusted with the capability and responsibility to remember and educate future generation about the horror of atomic weapon and the value of peace.
Additionally, more than just a symbol of paternal love, the ghost of Takezo is a medium of healing that harbors both the memory of death and possibility of survival. Right after the explosion until 1948, this ghost sustains a fantastical realm that protects Mitsue from the immediate shock that can lead to suicidal activities and allows her to slowly rebuild her daily life. This detail shows the humane side of Inoue as a writer, who after having read several hundred hibakusha's accounts, must have been painfully aware of how "too many bomb victims slit their throats or wrist" (Act 4) to escape the guilt of having survived. Compared to conventional reference to the bomb in the form of the repetitive flash at the beginning of the play, the ghost is a creative theatrical technique cleverly maneuvered to simultaneously reenact trauma through its presence while resolving trauma with its capacity for dialogue. By accepting his death and treating it with whimsical language, the ghost of Takezo promotes a calm attitude toward death as a possibility to overcome death. Thus, the play climaxes with the aesthetical collapse of Mitsue's imagined world as she directly faces Jizo's burned face with an acquired calm attitude and bids the farewell that was delayed for three years. At last, reborn from the ashes of Hiroshima, Mitsue becomes the symbol of the hibakusha who transcends death and carries the pain of Japan and the human race on the way toward a more peaceful future.
In the end, Inoue never mentions the perpetrator of the bomb but focuses solely on the psychology of the traumatized hibakusha to elevate the atomic trauma to a human level. Thus, viewers are exposed to the naked truth that we live in an atomic age where all natural lives can be precariously liquidated by the almost supernatural power of atomic weapons. While Inoue's characters and hopefully most hibakusha today can overcome their personal traumas, this post-Hiroshima world will continue to be haunted by the ghost of political nuclear deterrence unless we take actions to create a peaceful world free from nuclear weapons.