Photo/IllutrationTsuguharu Foujita’s war painting “Final Fighting on Attu” (1943) is exhibited in the Hyogo Prefectural Museum of Art in Kobe in August 2016. (Asahi Shimbun file photo)

In the final months of World War II, actor Kiyoshi Kodama was one of the Tokyo schoolchildren who were evacuated en masse from the capital to Gunma Prefecture.

During class one day, the teacher said: "I have sad news. There was an air raid in Tokyo, and some of your homes were burned down."

At that, the children whose homes were lost erupted in joyous cheers of "banzai."

Kodama was one of them.

"I felt a surge of something like pride, as if I'd done something good for the country," he is quoted as saying in "Showa 20-nen Natsu, Kodomotachi ga Mita Senso" (Summer of the 20th year of Showa: The war as seen by children), a book by Kumiko Kakehashi.

Kodama went on to recall that the children whose homes were unharmed looked crestfallen.

Children back then were as susceptible as adults to the abnormal wartime mentality of convincing themselves that any misfortune that befell them was actually an honor to be coveted.

I wonder if the same psychology lurked in the war painting "Final Fighting on Attu" by Tsuguharu Foujita (1886-1968). This work is currently on display at the Tokyo Metropolitan Art Museum as a part of the exhibition titled "Foujita: A Retrospective: Commemorating the 50th Anniversary of his Death."

The bloody battle on the Northern Pacific island of Attu in 1943 wiped out the 2,600 Imperial Japanese Army soldiers who fought there.

In Foujita's somber-hued portrayal, the troops are practically on top of one another in close combat, rendering them indistinguishable from their enemies. Some faces are contorted with agony, while others appear plainly dead.

Looking at this painting now makes me wonder if Foujita meant it as an anti-war statement.

At the time of its completion, the artist expressed his total satisfaction with it. He donated it to the army, which used it to bolster troop morale.

When the painting was shown to the public, it reportedly made some people fall on their knees and pray before it.

The glorification of death became firmly entrenched in the public psyche, giving rise to the fanatical wartime slogan of "Ichioku Gyokusai" (literally, honorable suicide for all 100 million citizens.)

When Foujita found fame in pre-war Paris, his works were known for his signature milky white hues. He abandoned that style to pour his soul into the portrayal of war, and his painting received accolades. But after the war, he came under attack for that same work.

History can throw a wrench in people's life plans, and I see Foujita as one of the victims.

--The Asahi Shimbun, Aug. 23

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Vox Populi, Vox Dei is a popular daily column that takes up a wide range of topics, including culture, arts and social trends and developments. Written by veteran Asahi Shimbun writers, the column provides useful perspectives on and insights into contemporary Japan and its culture.