Caring too much can be an occupational hazard for journalists in disaster or war zones. The mantra of big media is objectivity, not advocacy. Also, the media spotlight keeps shifting, while victims are still suffering. You either move with it — or get left behind.
Photojournalist Kikujiro Fukushima has been un-objectively caring and staying all six decades of his professional life, as well as relentlessly exposing what he calls “Japan’s lies” in nearly 250,000 photographs, many shot in dangerous places, with some resulting in violent consequences for their taker.
In Saburo Hasegawa’s engaging and hard-hitting documentary “Nippon no Uso: Hodo Shashinka Fukushima Kikujiro 90-sai (Japan Lies),” the 90-year-old Fukushima is still alert, still spry — and still confronting authority. At the 20-km exclusion zone surrounding the crippled Fukushima nuclear power plant, he snaps off shots of the security guards and their barriers with the rapid-fire intensity of someone decades younger. Photography for him is an act of witnessing, an act as deeply imbedded as the sense of sight itself.
Like many of his generation, Fukushima lost his trust in official truths in the ruins of World War II. A native of Yamaguchi Prefecture, he grew up yearning to die gloriously for the Emperor and in the waning days of the war trained at blowing up invading enemy tanks and himself with them. He narrowly escaped the atomic bombing of Hiroshima when his unit was transferred from the city a week before the blast, but by this time his enthusiasm for self-immolation had vanished.
After the war, Fukushima took up watchmaking as a trade, while helping war widows and orphans as a volunteer. With the aim of using his new hobby, photography, to raise money for them, he held his first photo exhibition in 1947. This work led to his acquaintance in 1951 with Sugimatsu Nakamura, a Hiroshima hibakusha (atomic bombing victim) struggling to raise six children alone while suffering radiation-caused ailments. With Nakamura’s encouragement, Fukushima took hundreds of candid shots of him and his family. In 1960 he mounted an exhibition of these photos, whose raw honesty shocked viewers and launched Fukushima as a professional photographer.
Over the next two decades, Fukushima recorded the upheavals of the era, including protests against Japan’s involvement in the Vietnam War and the opposition by farmers to the construction of Narita International Airport. He also continued to document the plight of the hibakusha, focusing on Koreans and members of other marginalized groups squatting in a section of Hiroshima known as the “atomic bomb slum.”
By the early 1980s, as Japan grew more prosperous and conservative, while heedlessly polluting its land and waters, Fukushima decided to give up photography and live with a younger woman on an uninhabited island. This idyll lasted only three years, after which Fukushima was diagnosed with cancer. He was successfully treated and in 1989, following the death of Fukushima’s bête noir, Emperor Showa, of the same disease, he mounted an exhibition titled “The Emperor’s War Responsibility” that traveled to 162 locations around Japan.
Today Fukushima lives modestly in a small apartment in Yamaguchi with his dog, refusing all support from his children and the state. “Do you really think I can receive money from the state when I’m fighting it?” he rhetorically asks.
Hasegawa tells Fukushima’s story with copious use of his photographs, all black and white, which capture moments of unguarded truth — without technical artifice. (Fukushima is self-taught, which has not helped his reputation among the photographic elite.) Actor Ren Osugi reads excerpts from Fukushima’s writings, though the film’s main voice is that of Fukushima himself. Despite the infirmities of age, he still displays a well-stocked memory, sharp intelligence and unbending will.
Watching Fukushima walk his dog, shop for food (his daily budget: ¥1,000) and otherwise conduct the normal business of life — which is no longer so normal for many his age — I began to admire him for not only his dedication to his photographic mission, but his pluck in the face of his most relentless opponent: time. He may not have beaten his various human enemies down — many of the crimes they committed are all but unknown by today’s youth — but with indignation as his fuel, he seems likely to outlast them.