On the eve of his appearance at a Victoria University event in Wellington, comic book author Fumio Obata talks to Guy Somerset about his ongoing project chronicling the aftermath of the Fukushima tsunami and nuclear disaster.
At art school, Fumio Obata was taught the importance of “the theme, having something of your own, something only you can do”. The theme that has preoccupied Obata for the past five years is one he has truly made his own. He has been chronicling, through striking comic book reportage, the devastating consequences of the magnitude 9.1 earthquake that struck off the northeast Pacific coast of Japan in March 2011, causing a tsunami and meltdowns and radioactive contamination at the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear plant.
Published in Italian magazine Internazionale and on his website, Obata’s comic strips capture the long-term effects of Fukushima and explore some of the knotty social, political and environmental issues raised by the disaster and its aftermath. The strips are destined to become his second book, his first being 2014’s internationally successful graphic novel Just So Happens, for which The Observer reviewer Rachel Cooke praised his “crazily accomplished” storytelling and described him as “a talent to watch”.
Reviews like that – and there were plenty more where it came from – can bring a writer a lot of opportunities and Obata was no exception, but he laughs: “I haven’t used them very well. Terrible, isn’t it? The good guys who had their debuts the same time as me, they are already on to their third or fourth book. Whereas me, I’m just caught up in this massive theme. Strategy-wise, I’m not very good!”
Obata is at Victoria University of Wellington this week as a visiting scholar in its School of Design. While he’s there, he’s taking part in a four-day international symposium on cultural sustainability, including a free public event with fellow writers Australian Ellen van Neerven and New Zealander Pip Adam.
His trip from the UK, where he has lived since 1991, when his Anglophile parents sent him to boarding school there from Japan, was broken with a stop-off in Tokyo and more reporting from the region around Fukushima, where 19,416 people died as a result of the 2011 earthquake and tsunami. There are still 2553 people listed as missing and 123,000 evacuees scattered around the country.
A YouTube video on Obata’s website gives a sense of what such reporting can entail. In it, dressed in a white protective suit, he walks through an eerily desolate ghost town that is about two kilometres from Fukushima and part of the designated exclusion zone.
“If you become friends with a resident, they have a pass and you can go there with them,” he says. He and his friend wore protective suits, but clear-up and other workers don’t. “They don’t become ill. They say it is fine. Even in the exclusion zone, it’s not all equally radioactive. Because particles are not going to be evenly dispersed. When you walk around with the Geiger counter, you notice that sometimes the figure is very low, then you go several feet away from that spot and the figure jumps up. Even outside the exclusion zone, if you go to the bits closest to the zone you find the figures are very high.”
Obata’s reporting, which he describes as “a kind of journalism, but I’m more doing my philosophical take on it”, begins with him taking photographs and recording interviews.
“Because I’m trying to structure a narrative, usually it’s the words I start with. I listen to the interviews I did and write down as much as I can. Then I take out the key words, the phrases I think are important, simplifying it. It’s very important simplifying the information. Because what I’m making is a comic strip. It’s not an article, which allows you to have I don’t know how many words: 2000, 3000. I need the space for pictures so I can’t have 3000 words.
“After that, I look at the photographs. Again, I may have about 200 photographs. I have to go through them and use about 10 out of 200. Those photographs are going to be my visual sources. Then I start sketching. All those sketches and rough pictures, they are like pieces of the puzzle. I’ve got a dozen pieces of puzzle with words and phrases and I’ve got the other side of the puzzle with the photographs, and I basically put them together.”
One of the most affecting stories Obata tells is that of Norio Kimura, whose father, wife and seven-year-old youngest daughter Yūna were lost in the tsunami. While the bodies of his father and wife were found in April 2011, Yūna’s remained missing. After the official search for her ended, Kimura continued looking, taking 1000km round trips to do so. After five years and nine months, a piece of bone was discovered that DNA testing proved was one of Yūna’s.
“Yūna was torn apart into small pieces, taken away with contaminated debris, now stored around anonymously,” reads one of the story’s panels. “Had they done the search longer and more carefully from the start, she could have been found a lot earlier, with her body almost intact too.”
The story ends with a panel reading: “A child has been left out alone in the shadow of the reconstruction. And her presence now poses a lot of questions to us.”
This is emotionally momentous material, very different to some of Obata’s other work, be it his 2004 anime of Duran Duran’s song Careless Memories for their then stage show or the short comic about the art of pencil sharpening you’ll find on his website.
Getting it right must weigh upon him, one imagines: these are hugely significant events and he’s almost certainly the only person who’s going to approach them in this form.
“Yeah, big pressure,” he says. “It’s very difficult to do. I appreciate people allow me to talk to them. Some say no, of course. I’ve heard tragic stories but they’ve asked me not to write about it. It’s interesting because they wanted to share that with somebody, somebody who’s not shared the same experience they have.
“The father I met is very vocal because he’s angry. He’s just full of anger. He’s trying to change something about the law, for the love of his daughter. It’s very moving. That’s why he basically opened up to me. His story is still developing and he’s still searching for the remains of his daughter.”
Another panel in the same story is of a city skyline at night and reads: “The nuclear plant was built to provide electricity to the capital region. By knowing Fukushima today, Tokyo could look arrogant, with all the excess of lights and luxury.”
It’s a point elegantly distilled – even poetically so.
But Obata is not one to cast simplistic blame. “It is something I have to tell people, especially my students [at the University of Gloucester and other universities around the UK where he teaches as a guest lecturer] when they try to do something about the world. They are angry young men, angry young people, but there are layers to things. There’s no right or wrong; the people are goodies and the people are baddies as well.
“When a tragedy happens, we tend to think there’s a victim and there’s an offender. There’s going to be people who get accused and there are victims who get all the sympathy from the public. But sometimes it’s not like that. Sometimes you can’t make things black and white.
“What’s happening with nuclear is one of these things. If you start reading just a short history of the nuclear industry, or nuclear technology, you see a lot of people believe in the technology and I can’t blame them, because I can’t prove them wrong. They get accused and the people who accuse them have right things to say and I can’t blame them either.
“So basically there are no answers to it and it’s very uncomfortable for the human mind not to have answers. You need a bit of patience and courage to accept that. This is one of the things I am going to say at the end, I think: it’s difficult to accept an open ending but you’ve got to have the courage.”
As for Tokyo: “The consumption of energy really helped to establish today’s Japan’s reputation. And I’m part of it. I can’t really criticise it. I just have to take in the contradiction and try to respond.”
Responding to this and the other contradictions he’s encountered in the past five years still has a way to run for Obata. Asked if he’s going to make the 2018 publication date his website gives for his book, he laughs: “Nah, of course not. I just have to put a lot of energy into it and hope the pictures can deliver the intensity of what I’ve seen.”
Fumio Obata is in a creative conversation with fellow writers Ellen van Neerven and Pip Adam at Wai-te-ata Press on Victoria University of Wellington’s Kelburn campus at 6pm–8pm on Thursday 10 August, as part of the University’s International Cultural Sustainability Symposium. The event is free and chaired by Wellington Writers Week manager Mark Cubey.
Guy Somerset is Senior Communications Adviser – Media Content at Victoria University of Wellington.
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