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Born next door to what became the Hiroshima Atomic Bomb Dome (Pt. 1): Last mission

Filmmaker Masaaki Tanabe sits at the location of his former home and reflects on the building now called the Atomic Bomb Dome in the city of Hiroshima on June 25, 2021. (Mainichi/Naohiro Yamada)=Click/tap photo for more images.

HIROSHIMA -- Hiroshima filmmaker Masaaki Tanabe considers himself to be the "caretaker of the Atomic Bomb Dome."

    The 83-year-old man was born and raised next door to this building that was destroyed by the world's first-ever nuclear attack, of which the skeletal dome has become a symbol. During his career as a documentarist, Tanabe's major work turned out to be a computer graphic restoration of the pre-bombing cityscape of his neighborhood with the hemispherical roof at its center.

    76 years have passed since the bombing, and the number of survivors who remember the landscape is diminishing. A Mainichi Shimbun reporter joined Tanabe to observe today's A-Bomb Dome and to reconfirm what it symbolizes.

    A map of present-day Hiroshima shows filmmaker Masaaki Tanabe's home and military ground before the atomic bombing.

    The "Dome," as it is often referred to in this city, is now found on the grounds of the vast Peace Memorial Park, encircled by a black, metal fence restricting entrance. With the municipal government's permission, we entered from the south.

    Tanabe first stopped and gave a silent prayer. This was where his long-time family home used to stand.

    The hypocenter was some 160 meters to the southeast. Before the fateful day of Aug. 6, 1945, Tanabe had evacuated to neighboring Yamaguchi Prefecture. However, his mother and younger brother had just returned. Their bones remain missing.

    Tanabe told me, "My house didn't happen to be beside the Dome. The Dome was constructed next to us."

    He grew up being told his ancestors had accompanied the Asano clan, the rulers of the Hiroshima domain, when they moved from the Kishu region, today's Wakayama and Mie prefectures. What became the A-Bomb Dome was built in 1915 on former domain property facing the Motoyasugawa river as the "Hiroshima Prefectural Product Exhibition Hall," a facility to display and sell local specialties. By the time Tanabe was born in 1937, it had been renamed the prefectural "Industrial Promotion Hall."

    This housing map shows the vicinity of the Hiroshima Prefectural Industrial Promotion Hall before the atomic bombing with Masaaki Tanabe's home next to it. This map, with its top as the south, is exhibited near the A-Bomb Dome in the city of Hiroshima, and was photographed on May 22, 2020. (Mainichi/Noboru Ujo)

    Tanabe pointed to the remains of its southern wall. "Extend this wall and you would have found an annex to our house. I was born on its second floor." The hall's front entrance faced the river and his family had lived behind the hall.

    "The hall's walls were ivory colored and the copper roof was naturally patinated. No matter how far away I wandered off to play, I could pinpoint my location by finding the dome and get home with no trouble." If he had embarked north from the hall, moved across the avenue with trollies and through an army training ground, he would have ended up in the vicinity of Hiroshima Castle, a great playground for kids.

    This aerial photo viewing northward taken in October 1935 shows the Hiroshima Prefectural Industrial Promotion Hall with its domed roof. The distinctive T-shaped "Aioi Bridge" to its left became the target of the atomic bomb.(Mainichi)=Click/tap photo for more images.

    The bomb had taken the life of his father, who was an army officer. With only his grandmother left as close kin, life was tough and full of uncertainty. Back then, his grandmother would often mention the name of a Czechoslovakian architect, Jan Letzel (1880-1925), who had designed the hall.

    She would pronounce "Letzel" in the formal way, unlike a Japanese usually would. Tanabe remembers, "According to my grandmother, she saw the hall completed step by step from scratch. Throughout the construction, Letzel would stop by our home whenever he was in town."

    "Our porch was perfect for a foreman to sit and oversee. Letzel would be welcomed with tea, and he would exchange views on Hiroshima's culture with my grandfather. When the architect left the city for good, he left a Bohemian glass set." This token of friendship was lost in the bombing.

    Two days after the disaster, Tanabe and his grandmother returned home, which had been obliterated and left a pile of rubble. The elegance of the Industrial Promotion Hall was no longer to be seen. The city was dead without a single cicada to be heard in midsummer.

    The remains of the hall came to be called in Japanese the Genbaku Dome, considered a "negative legacy" of humankind, emblematic of hope for a world without nuclear arms. UNESCO listed it a World Heritage site in December 1996, 51 years after the bombing.

    Up to that time, my interviewee had turned his back on the history of the bombing. Life was difficult after losing both parents, and he entered a high school outside of Hiroshima to "sever any ties with the A-bomb." Even after he returned to the city upon graduating college and established a filmmaking company, he refused any job offers relating to the subject.

    The turnaround came a few months after the site's designation as a world heritage spot. It was spring of 1997.

    Passing by the site on his way home after visiting a cemetery, he saw high-school girls posing for photos with smiles as they held their fingers in "peace" signs. Behind them was the plot of land where his house had stood.

    This made up his mind. "I will stop running away from this issue." At 60 years of age, he commenced production of movies using state-of-the-art, full-colored computer imagery to reconstruct the scenery of his hometown before destruction, combined with testimonies of people who remembered those times. The first piece, about the Industrial Promotion Hall, was released in 1998. This led to a total of six works released through 2015. The Hypocenter Restoration Project found a global audience, and even had a showing at the U.N. Headquarters.

    This image taken from the documentary, "An Unrecognized Loss -- Message from Hiroshima" by Masaaki Tanabe, shows a re-creation using computer graphics of the area near the hypocenter of the Hiroshima atomic bombing. The building at the far center is the Hiroshima Prefectural Industrial Promotion Hall, now known as the Atomic Bomb Dome.=Click/tap photo for more images.

    Today, Tanabe is engaged in a new project. He plans to live-stream a Noh performance, a traditional and often religious drama with dance and music, to be staged outside the heritage site on an evening in November. The show is to be for the repose of souls at ground zero, with a bonfire to light up the theater.

    Noh was supposed to be Tanabe's pastime in retirement. He had thought his mission was achieved upon completion of his movie project. But Noh refreshed his artistic passion.

    The creator has devoted two decades of his life to advocate that the mortal sin of nuclear weapons is not just the destruction of human lives and objects, but also the instantaneous erasure of human activity, and the termination of history and culture that had taken decades or centuries to cultivate.

    His birthplace used to be in an area named Sarugaku-cho (district). Sarugaku is the original form of Noh. He says, "I remember hearing Noh music or people practicing traditional drums and flutes in the area. In ancient times, the Tanabes may have been connected to Noh." His wish for his family members and old neighbors to rest in peace and the old district name synergistically encouraged him to plan a Noh drama right below the bomb's hypocenter.

    A special stage will be assembled just outside the black fence we had entered. The performance will be broadcast live on the internet from 6 p.m. (UTC +9 hours) on Nov. 15, to reach a worldwide audience. The site's address "24 Sarugaku-cho, Hiroshima City" and its disappearance signifies the memories and history of this land. Tanabe said, "This will be my last work," and looked up at the Dome.

    (Japanese original by Noboru Ujo, Hiroshima Bureau Chief)

    In Photos: Filmmaker reflects on being born next to what became Hiroshima Atomic Bomb Dome

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