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Human A-bomb shadow led Belgian comic creator to tell world of Hiroshima devastation

This photo shows the "Human Shadow Etched in Stone," which bears the dark silhouette of a person sitting on the stone steps at the time of the atomic bombing, and an illustration depicting a story about the stone, foreground, in Naka Ward, Hiroshima, on July 16, 2021. (Mainichi/Naohiro Yamada)

HIROSHIMA -- In 1981, an 11-year-old Belgian boy came with his father to Hiroshima. What he saw at the Hiroshima Peace Memorial Museum shocked him beyond anything he had ever experienced. One particular artifact stopped him in his tracks: "Human Shadow Etched in Stone." Decades later, that boyhood encounter at the museum inspired Didier Alcante, 50, to create a French-language comic book titled simply "La Bombe" (The Bomb), which has sold more than 90,000 copies since it was published in 2020.

    From right, Didier Alcante, Canadian illustrator Denis Rodier, and French scriptwriter Laurent-Frederic Bollee, are seen in Hiroshima on a research trip in 2018. (Photo courtesy of Didier Alcante)

    The "Human Shadow Etched in Stone," donated by the Hiroshima branch of the former Sumitomo Bank to the Hiroshima Peace Memorial Museum, is seen in Naka Ward, Hiroshima, on July 16, 2021. (Mainichi/Naohiro Yamada)

    Now, it has been translated and has hit the shelves in some 15 countries, including the five major nuclear powers: the United States, Russia, Britain, France, and China.

    Seiji Nakahara, right, explains to Didier Alcante what his alma mater, Honkawa Elementary School, was like before the atomic bombing, at the Hiroshima Peace Memorial Museum in 2018. (Photo courtesy of Didier Alcante)

    The cover of the comic book "La Bombe" is seen in Naka Ward, Hiroshima, on July 16, 2021. (Mainichi/Naohiro Yamada)

    The stone bearing that human shadow was part of the granite steps at the entrance of the Hiroshima branch of the former Sumitomo Bank, located about 260 meters from the A-bomb's hypocenter. The surface temperature near the hypocenter is said to have reached 3,000 to 4,000 degrees Celsius, and it is believed that a person sitting on the stairs before the bank opened died instantly. The only trace they left was the human-shaped dark patch where they had been. It was cut out of the steps and donated to the museum in 1971. Who that person was remains unknown.

    "For me it was like seeing a ghost. You could see remains of a human. But there was nobody, it was weird to see a shadow and there is nobody; it was like seeing a ghost, it was shocking," Alcante, a scriptwriter now living in Brussels, recalled thinking as a child.

    Even after returning to Belgium, the memory of the stone haunted him. While he felt a sense of hopelessness over how cruel humans can be, Alcante also developed a desire to preserve the horror of the atomic bombing and the folly of war in some form. He came up with an idea to draw the process and political background of the incident as "Barefoot Gen," a manga depicting the atomic bombing on Aug. 6, 1945, had already been published in Belgium in 1984.

    Alcante co-wrote the text for La Bombe with Laurent-Frederic Bollee, a French scriptwriter, and asked Denis Rodier, a Canadian illustrator, to do the art. The three of them visited the Hiroshima Peace Memorial Museum in 2018.

    Seiji Nakahara, 69, who runs a cram school in Hiroshima's Naka Ward, gave them a tour of the city. Nakahara's grandfathers were both killed in the atomic bombing, and his mother was also exposed to radiation when she entered the area in the aftermath.

    Nakahara had visited the museum many times as an interpreter. He said the three men left an impression on him, as they asked detailed questions such as whether Mazda was turning out auto-tricycles and guns at the same time during the war.

    After the three returned home, Nakahara exchanged nearly 100 emails with them, answering their questions and checking their descriptions to ensure that no mistakes crept into the parts of the comic related to Japan.

    The work took five years to complete. The story centers on Leo Szilard, a Hungarian-born Jewish physicist involved in the Manhattan Project to develop the atomic bomb.

    Fearing that Germany would develop an atomic bomb first, Szilard sent a letter cosigned by Albert Einstein, also of Jewish descent and a prominent figure, to U.S. President Franklin Roosevelt in 1939 urging him to build an A-bomb to counter the Nazis. Three years later, the Manhattan Project began. But because of the weapon's brutality Szilard always opposed dropping the bomb without warning on Japan after Germany's surrender.

    The completed uranium atomic bomb, Little Boy, was transported to Tinian island in the Northern Marianas, and dropped on Hiroshima by the U.S. B-29 bomber Enola Gay on Aug. 6, 1945. The story progresses in parallel in Japan and the U.S., portraying Szilard shedding tears upon learning of the bombing, and a Japanese man sitting on the Sumitomo Bank steps disappearing instantly in the atomic flash.

    "La Bombe" is a massive work of 472 pages and has a cover price of 39 euros (about 5,000 yen, or $46). Despite its high price, it has sold well, and the decision was made to market it outside Europe, too. A Japanese edition is not yet planned, but Alcante hopes it will appear in bookstores here alongside "Barefoot Gen."

    Alcante said that even if people learn about the atomic bombing on the news or in class, it doesn't really sink in. But with a comic, they can put themselves in the shoes of the characters and live in the story. He said he would like as many children as possible to pick up the book.

    The story ends with uranium, the radioactive material used to make the "Little Boy" atomic bomb, speaking in the first person, the words over a backdrop of black shadows on stone steps.

    "Do you think my story is over? What if it's just beginning?" the element says.

    Even since the tragedy of Hiroshima and Nagasaki 76 years ago, humankind has conducted over 2,000 nuclear tests, and there are currently about 13,000 nuclear warheads on Earth.

    (Japanese original by Isamu Gari, Hiroshima Bureau)


    Manhattan Project

    A secret United States atomic bomb development program, initiated during World War II over fears that Nazi Germany would produce an atomic bomb first. A U.S. Army project office was established in Manhattan, New York, and the bomb's development was carried out primarily at a laboratory in Los Alamos, New Mexico. In July 1945, the first nuclear test in human history was successfully conducted in New Mexico, and the following month, atomic bombs using enriched uranium and plutonium were dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki, respectively.

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