‘Fukushima Devil Fish’: A Nuclear Pastoral via The New York Review of Books

Ryan Holmberg

Art changed in Japan after the tsunami and nuclear meltdowns of March 2011. So did art history—or at least it should have.


Yet much of this retrospection ignored a basic fact: very few of Japan’s many disaster-fantasy masterpieces have anything to do with nuclear power plants, nor with the dangers of building a dense, highly industrialized society along the seismically hyperactive Pacific Rim. Pointing out that Godzilla (the child of atmospheric hydrogen bomb testing in the 1950s) stepped on a nuclear power plant in a movie from 1995 or philosophizing about how he razed Tokyo amid bureaucratic seizure in Shin Godzilla in 2016 hardly helps to clarify how more than fifty nuclear power plants and multiple reprocessing facilities came to be built across the Japanese archipelago, in many cases facing tectonic fissures out in the Pacific Ocean with a centuries-long reputation for creating titanic waves, and in some cases directly over fault lines. The Fukushima Daiichi plant and what its existence revealed about Japanese society in the past and future were being obscured by mushroom clouds.


While disasterism continues to hog the spotlight—see, for example, the large survey, Catastrophe and the Power of Art, to open at the Mori Art Museum in Tokyo in October—the events of 2011 also unearthed a great deal of culture grappling less sensationally with nuclear power in its various states and guises. The earliest examples date back to the early 1970s, soon after the first light-water reactors went online (Fukushima Daiichi began feeding the grid in 1971) and national news media took note of the determined protests against nuclear industrialization in the countryside. Spanning novels, comics, painting, and photography, this diverse body of art spoke less to tropes of horror and the sublime and more to the nuances of nuclear and industrial risk and the social upheavals caused by aggressive state-mandated industrialization in a country where agricultural and fishing communities once wielded substantial autonomy and cultural respect. It was a body of art whose representative images—angry fisherwomen with protest banners, shadowy reactor containments greedily occupying the shores of remote bays and coastlines, lawyers and activists pointing fingers in town halls, beleaguered nuclear janitors—could never hope to compete with the universally recognizable iconography of nuclear fear. Apocalypse may be a much easier sell than debates about risk or legally sanctioned dispossession. But it is still sad when intellectuals and the cultural elite resort to end-time clichés when something much more subtle and insidious has unfolded in their backyard.

As someone who spends most of his time writing about and translating old Japanese comics, the most interesting item in this excavated archive for me was Susumu Katsumata’s (1943-2007) many manga about nuclear risk and rural displacement from the 1970s and 1980s. I already knew Katsumata’s work through his contributions to the legendary alternative manga magazine Garo, where he debuted in 1966 as an author of witty strips dealing with changing social mores and the tumult on Japanese university campuses. I was familiar with the feisty, alienated folklore creatures in his multi-page stories for Garo and other venues beginning in 1969. I recognized his careful attention to details of rural life – crafted fictions of the northern Japanese landscape where he grew up in the 1950s, brought up to date with the shadow of depopulation that still harrows the Japanese countryside. Yet, as a young man whose heart throbbed for the gritty countercultural violence and cool avant-gardism that otherwise dominated Garo, I wrote off Katsumata as a sentimental pastoralist.


The earliest stories in Deep Sea Fish, drawn during and immediately after this period, employ haunting scenography to express feelings of loneliness felt by many displaced rural youth. The later nuclear stories date from an era when Katsumata was actively contributing to Japan’s anti-nuclear movement with illustrations and satirical strips for progressive publishers on topics ranging from the negative biological effects of radiation and accidents at Three Mile Island and Chernobyl, to the dangers posed by heightened Cold War tensions in the Pacific Ocean and Japan Sea. For a cartoonist to have the academic credentials that Katsumata did (few had more than high school diplomas before the 1970s) was extremely rare; intimate knowledge of both nuclear science and the plight of Japan’s rural areas—two topics of acute importance today—was something that probably Katsumata alone could claim.


Deep Sea Fish, with its juxtapositions of familiar folklore characters and motifs with themes of displacement and nuclear industrialization, provided an elegiac window onto how the Tohoku region has struggled not only because it is more prone to natural calamities (including three major tsunamis since the late nineteenth century), but also because the land and its peoples have been subject to discrimination and exploitation by government and industrial powers in Tokyo since the advent of the modern era. Saddling Tohoku with the nation’s three largest nuclear complexes—the Fukushima Daiichi facility, the even bigger Kashiwazaki-Kariwa Nuclear Power Station in Niigata, and the behemoth fuel reprocessing and waste storage facility in Rokkasho in Aomori—is just one example. In other words, Deep Sea Fish revealed Katsumata’s personal geography and compromised pastoral landscape as a map to a better understanding of how the 2011 disaster was, above all, a disaster for northern Japan.


If Japanese negligence is a problem, so is foreign ignorance. I thought it imperative to get Deep Sea Fish out in English mainly to combat the mushroom clouds, kneejerk radiophobia, and lazy Fukushima-Hiroshima equations that have shaped so much art and writing about Japan since 2011. Finally, this past spring, an English edition of Deep Sea Fish (which had previously appeared in French) was published by London’s Breakdown Press, under the new title of Fukushima Devil Fish. The retitling, derived from one of the collection’s stories, “Devil Fish (Octopus)” (1989), which is set at a fictional nuclear power plant in Soma, a town in Fukushima Prefecture thirty miles north of the crippled Daiichi facility, was primarily designed to get the book into the hands of people who were interested in the events of 2011 but oblivious to new releases in the world of comics. I am credited only as translator—but I’m a very hands-on translator, like serial strangler “hands-on,” with my primary occupation as an art historian threatening to throttle each new project by turning every explanatory blurb into a dissertation. The result this time was a book whose publication was delayed, embarrassingly, by nearly two years. If foreign ignorance is to blame for skewed perceptions of 2011, so is the professionally indoctrinated slowness of scholars.


Fukushima Devil Fish by Katsumata Susumu, edited by Asakawa Mitsuhiro and translated by Ryan Holmberg, is published by Breakdown Press.

Read more at ‘Fukushima Devil Fish’: A Nuclear Pastoral 

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