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Features The War and Its Aftermath
Museum of the Fallen Art Students: A Tribute to Dreams Cut Short

The student mobilization of 1943 sent thousands of young men off to die in the war effort, including many aspiring painters. In 1997, a Tokyo entrepreneur built a museum to preserve and display the works of those fallen art students. We traveled to Ueda in Nagano Prefecture to visit the Mugonkan on the eve of its twentieth anniversary and talk to 75-year-old founder and director Kuboshima Seiichirō.

The entrance to the Mugonkan (Museum of Silence) is about 10 minutes by car from Shiodamachi Station in the city of Ueda, Nagano Prefecture. From there, you walk 300 meters up a steep wooded hill. I was almost out of breath when my destination came into view. On the verdant hilltop, spring leaves rustled in the wind.

The Mugonkan museum stands secluded on a wooded hilltop.

The footpath leads straight to the entrance of the main building. This simple structure together with a newer addition known as the Dome of Damaged Canvases further beyond make up the entirety of the Mugonkan.

The door to the main building opens onto a dim, cool space. Proceeding to the center of the building, one realizes that the gallery is laid out in the form of a cross, much like a chapel. Paintings are hung with care along the walls. Display cases exhibit a variety of personal artifacts, from old brushes and palettes to letters and sketches.

Inside the main building.

The pictures on exhibit vary widely by subject matter, style, and size, but all are the works of art students and other aspiring young painters who lost their lives in World War II. This is their museum and memorial.

Each Picture Tells a Story

The paintings are paired with biographical sketches and anecdotes that provide insight into the artists who created them. Stopping before an unfinished oil painting titled Nude, one learns that the painter, a young man named Hidaka Yasunori, labored over the work until the last minute, unwilling to lay down his brush even as well-wishers gathered to send him off to battle. At last, Hidaka bade farewell to his sweetheart, who had posed for the picture, promising to come back and finish it. He died in the Philippines at the age of 27.

Nude. Hidaka Yasunori.

A young art instructor by the name of Sakuma Osamu is represented by two works, a drawing of a reclining nude and a portrait entitled Shizuko. Both depict the painter’s wife. After students lost their exemption under a 1943 decree and were mobilized toward the war effort, a band of young students, led by Sakuma, set out for aviation school in Nagasaki Prefecture. The facility was hit by enemy bombers, and Sakuma died there at the age of 29. For many years after the war, these works adorned the bedroom of his widow, who derived comfort from “living under the watchful eye of Osamu’s pictures.”

Shizuko. Sakuma Osamu.

Nude. Sakuma Osamu.

An intimate group gathers around a small table for coffee in Izawa Hiroshi’s Family. The son of a farmer, Izawa had left the countryside to study at an art school in Tokyo. The entire family had chipped in to pay his tuition. “We were really poor,” recollected his elder brother, who preserved the painting over the years. “I think Hiroshi dreamed of such a scene, and that’s why he painted this.” The young man described as the Izawa family’s “star player” was killed in New Guinea at the age of 26.

Family. Izawa Hiroshi.

A Survivor Plants the Seed

Mugonkan founder and director Kuboshima Seiichirō got the idea for the project from the noted oil painter Nomiyama Gyōji. Nomiyama (now 96) went off to fight shortly after graduating from the prestigious Tokyo School of Fine Arts in 1942, but he fell seriously ill in Manchuria and was sent home before the war ended. Many of his comrades never returned.

In February 1994, almost a half century after the war’s end, Nomiyama attended an event at the Shinano Drawing Museum (also in Ueda), built to house Kuboshima’s private collection of drawings by early twentieth-century Japanese artists who died young.

As one of the war’s survivors, Nomiyama had never ceased to think about those who had suffered and died amid the increasingly grim conditions at the front. He spoke to Kuboshima about the many budding artists who had perished in World War II. “You like pictures by painters who died young, right?” he said. “Well, unless someone does something about it, the works of these young painters are going to disappear from the face of the earth.”

Kuboshima immediately offered to help locate and collect them. There was no easy way to go about it. It would involve searching meticulously through the student rolls of various art schools, seeking out surviving relatives, and traveling all over the country to call on them personally. But the thought of letting those paintings vanish spurred him to action.

A quiet, contemplative atmosphere envelops the Mugonkan’s newer addition, known as the Dome of Damaged Canvases.

Kuboshima’s Epiphany

At the start, Kuboshima had no thought of building a separate museum; he figured he could set aside a separate gallery in his Shinano Drawing Museum for paintings and drawings by the ill-fated art students. Apart from everything else, there was the issue of quality. Kuboshima was an experienced collector who had been drawn to the outstanding work of a group of brilliant young twentieth-century Japanese painters. By contrast, his search for pictures by art students killed in the war had (not surprisingly) yielded only student-quality work. For the most part, moreover, “these were not the kind of pictures that would even get you into a descent art school nowadays.”

Then, a few months into the project, Kuboshima had an epiphany. He was lying down in a small room in the Shinano Drawing Museum where he was accustomed to sleep. Around him, spread out on the tatami mat floor, were about a dozen pictures he had recently acquired for the new gallery. At some point far into the night, Kuboshima says, he clearly heard a voice coming from one of the paintings. It was saying, “I want to paint! I want to keep painting!”

That was when he came to a new understanding. “I realized it wasn’t about how artistically accomplished the paintings were,” explains Kuboshima. “Yes, they were mediocre artworks, but the people who painted them weren’t doing it because they wanted to win a contest or become famous. They were doing it purely out of the desire to paint.”

Kuboshima called Nomiyama and told him, “I don’t want to display these pictures in the Shinano Drawing Museum. I want to build a museum especially for them and call it the Mugonkan.”

  • [2017.06.15]
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