Vision from the other side


It’s not every day that you walk into a room to find yourself standing face-to-face with a skinned cadaver. It’s the kind of thing that can change your whole day . . . or your whole life.

“My, what lidless eyes you have,” was one of the many thoughts flying through my mind — followed by, “Thank goodness I skipped lunch today!” And, of course, “To think that all our life comes down to just bags of guts and bones like this . . .”

There is no way to react mildly to “Jintai no Fushigi Ten (Mysteries of the Human Body),” an exhibition of preserved limbs, lungs, veins, brains and, yes, entire corpses in various poses, currently on at the Yokohama Sambo Hall.

The exhibition — sponsored by the Tokyo-based Mysteries of the Human Body Executive Committee, with the participation of the Japan Anatomy Laboratory and the Yomiuri Shimbun newspaper — is many things to many people. And whether or not you think it is in good taste, it is without doubt an excellent lesson in anatomy.

That was surely the case for the two elderly women I found gaping at a display case full of severed hands and feet as they marveled at the interplay of exposed muscles and tendons.

Curiosity and temptation

A card on a nearby display, meanwhile, explained that the stringy white latticework crisscrossing the body of a dissected man was actually a network of nerves that had linked his brain, muscles, skin and other organs. Curiosity and temptation may clearly have got the better of some visitors to open-display exhibits here, as parents are asked to keep their children from “pulling on the specimens’ muscles or nerves.”

To a group huddled around a horizontal case, the exhibit seemed more a chance to reflect on mortality. There, a naked man lay stretched out below the glass, his head angled sharply backward and his unseeing gaze aimed at the cosmos. A woman looked at him and said, “Poor thing.”

Was she really pitying the man, who was well beyond sympathy? Or, knowing that the Grim Reaper awaits us all, was she actually pitying herself? Either way, death could be observed safely as “the other” . . . as long as it stayed mute and odorless on the other side of the glass.

Is the exhibit art? One can ask what beauty exists in a woman’s corpse bent into a ballet leap, say, or a solitary, inch-thick slice of head — no matter how serene its facial expression. But there is no doubt that the exhibits offer an extremely unusual perception.

Whether ghouls, gaping grannies or artgoers, the exhibit has attracted over 3.6 million curious spectators since its seemingly never-ending tour of Japan began in Osaka in 2002. The current show in Yokohama is the 14th stop along the way.

The organizing committee, for its part, has stated that one of the main purposes of the show is to demystify the biological mechanisms that keep us healthy or, when they break down, send us racing to the doctor.

Debate over boundaries

When I first approached the committee about an article, they chose to respond to me with a fax that said, “Visitors can personally explore the questions ‘What is a human?’ ‘What is life?’ ‘What is the body?’ and ‘What is health?’ ”

Popular author Takeshi Yoro, a professor emeritus at the University of Tokyo and one of the show’s best-known committee members, would also like the show to break some taboos.

“In Japanese society, there are many tacit rules regarding death. Dead people are not considered friends,” Yoro, an anatomist, writes in an exhibit guide. “I would prefer it were understood that the dead are people, too.”

Death, to be sure, is natural. The technology behind making it presentable, though, is high-tech stuff in the tradition of German anatomy artist Gunther von Hagens — whose pioneering of such displays in the 1970s sparked fierce debate about the boundaries between art and sacrilege.

To drain the specimens of fluids and fat, they are first submerged for weeks in an acetone solution cooled to minus 25 degrees Celsius, with the solvent’s concentration increased gradually to prevent shrinking. Silicon is then applied to provide resilience.

By the time they are dried, the specimens have become odorless and easy to handle. So much so, that visitors were actually allowed to touch one corpse that was cut down the middle to reveal a cross section of the head and torso. Many took the opportunity to stroke serratus anterior muscles in the rib cage, or to feel for themselves a forearm’s flexor carpi radialis.

Judging by visitors’ expressions of awe — one woman chirped “So heavy!” when she lifted a brain in her hands — few seemed concerned about the morality of placing bodies on public display. This is certainly surprising in a country where Buddhist practice usually dictates that a corpse be immediately cremated, and the Shinto religion maintains that a body becomes spiritually impure with death.

Whether for religious or personal reasons, there was a marked ambivalence toward a display containing fetuses in various stages of gestation.

Many women did pause to peer intently at the faces of the pre-born babies, but for others it seemed too much to handle and one pregnant woman managed only the most fleeting glance before moving swiftly on.

Another visitor, 24-year-old office worker Sachiko, was primarily concerned about the issue of consent. “I wouldn’t be so opposed to my own body being displayed, but I wouldn’t want it for my child,” she said.

There were other ethical considerations regarding the history of the cadavers. In the fax I received, the organizing committee wrote, “[The specimens] are borrowed from a research institute in Nanking [China]. Specimens displayed in this exhibit were procured after permission for donation was made during life by the people themselves.”

I asked the committee to elaborate on that, in light of widespread allegations in news reports and U.S. Congressional testimony that organs — unrelated to these exhibits — are being harvested for surgical transplantation from executed prisoners in China.

The committee again stated that, “Procurement was done on the basis of consent given by the people themselves while alive.” Furthermore, they said, “We checked the [relevant] documentation on the occasion of the 2002 opening,” adding that the specimens will be returned to the Nanking institute upon conclusion of the event.

But even if I knew more about the history of the bodies, there would be other knotty philosophical points. Does the spirit care what happens to the corpse? Does spirit even exist? And how does all that relate to me? These are issues that will confound thinkers for ages to come.

If anatomical education were the only goal of “Mysteries of the Human Body,” then plastic models, perhaps, could do just as good a job. Moving joints could be crafted; artificial “blood” could course through rubber veins.

But, as author Yoro suggested, by employing real bodies the show makes us consider not only “What is life?” but also “What is death?”

And reminds us that, whether we choose to befriend it or not, death is always close enough to touch.