The children’s drawings that arrived in the Twin Cities came from a time and a place that had been obliterated by war 70 years ago.
So when Shizumi Shigeto Manale was first asked to look at the drawings by children who survived the atomic bomb blast in Hiroshima, she braced herself for a child’s view of horror.
“I expected to see dark, painful drawings of people who were suffering, people who were bombed with skin melting and hair that was gone.”
But the drawings made with crayons, colored pencils and paint were vibrant pictures of blue skies, green hills, cherry blossoms, gardens and children playing in a park. At first it didn’t make sense to Manale because these children lived in a city that was left in ruins after the United States dropped the bomb in August 1945. The explosion wiped out most of the city, immediately killed about 80,000 people and left thousands more to die later from radiation exposure.
Manale slowly flipped through drawings in August 2006 and knew immediately she needed to tell the story behind the joyful pictures that were part of an exchange between American and Japanese schoolchildren in 1947 and 1948. Those drawings became a national and then international symbol of hope and reconciliation and continued to resonate decades later, she said.
Now the drawings and the documentary film they inspired — “Pictures From a Hiroshima Schoolyard” — are part of an exhibit at the Landmark Center in St. Paul. Some of the drawings also are on exhibit at the First Universalist Church of Minneapolis.
The story of the drawings began when the minister at All Souls Church, Unitarian in Washington, D.C., delivered a sermon, “Lest the Living Forget,” in 1947 after seeing a newspaper photograph of two admirals smiling next to a cake topped with angel-food puffs in the shape of mushroom clouds. The children in his church later collected a half-ton of supplies — pencils, crayons, paper, erasers, paste, baseball equipment — to send to two schools and an orphanage in Hiroshima.
In return, the Japanese children used the art supplies to send their thanks to the Americans. “They practiced hundreds of times on newspaper before they used the paper from America,” Manale said.
“It’s a beautiful story of friendship,” said Manale, a dancer, performing artist and choreographer who was born in Hiroshima in 1948, grew up in Osaka, Japan, and moved to the United States in 1975. “It’s a story about little, little, tiny kindnesses that make people live on. This is a story to remind people not to forget that little kindnesses are really a big deal.”
The drawings were tucked away in 1950 and forgotten until being rediscovered in 1995 after a woman found them in her mother’s closet. Since then, the All Souls Church has shown them to busloads of Japanese visitors who came in search of the illustrations, said Bryan Reichhardt, the documentary’s writer and director.
“The kids who drew them were basically starving to death and doing horrible things to stay alive” in the wasteland left after the bomb was dropped. Reichhardt said. “There was nothing there and these kids are drawing pictures of cherry blossoms, kites flying, picnics and green pastures. That’s why people get moved when they see these pictures. The unwavering optimism of children gets to people.”
Manale said the church raised money to restore the drawings, which had become damaged over the years. Meanwhile, she and Reichhardt worked on the documentary, tracking down 21 artists of those drawings and some of the church members involved in collecting the supplies. The film premiered in November 2013. But a year earlier, Manale insisted that a rough cut be shown in Japan for some of the remaining survivors to see. After that showing, they found 10 more artists behind the drawings, she said.
In the end, it’s a story about connections, Reichhardt said. “Even after a horrible war on both sides, people can still connect, and that’s beautiful. It’s inspiring. “Those pictures represent that very clearly and very quickly once you understand who drew them and why they were drawn. … You can get past anything.”