“The Bodies Left Behind”

“The Bodies Left Behind” is the pilot episode of the ‘Life After People’ series by the History Channel. The resume of the episode states:

“In the first episode of new series Life After People, we’ll see what happens to some of the bodies left behind. Most are embalmed and buried, some are mummified, while others have been cryogenically frozen. Will any of them truly achieve immortality? Or will they be outlived by other memorials to mankind, like the Statue of Liberty or the Sistine Chapel.

This is just part of a journey that will take us to the future of cities such as Boston and Houston, as well as haunting sites already devoid of man.”

The series is an exploration of what will happen to our planet – should the catastrophic happen and we all suddenly disappear a week from next Tuesday. As a concept, it’s thoroughly intriguing and the first episode certainly does a good job of teasing the audience with enough visuals and hypotheticals. But there’s a catch to it all. There’s a new aesthetic to documentaries – one which focuses on flashy transitions and quick-hit facts which tends to emphasize breadth, rather than depth. That is precisely the impact of this episode – which, unfortunately, doesn’t serve the overall concept as well as it might have otherwise.

The structure of the episode is to follow the fate of humanity’s quest for “immortality” from the mummies of Ancient Egypt, to our proudest architectural creations, to cryogenics, to the “Immortality Drive” (a computer representation of the human genetic code) in orbit on the international space station. The problem here is a bit of disconnect with the episode’s title – which implies a discussion of the human “bodies” that are left after the end of our species. Getting by that minor inconsistency, there’s quite a bit of intriguing information to be had.

Jumping from one day to months, years, decades and millennia into the future, the episode describes the fate of landmarks such as the Houston Astrodome, the Statue of Liberty, Boston’s Old North Church, and Michaelangelo’s frescoes. The emphasis, of course, is to detail just how long these relics of humanity will hang around. In case you’re wondering, most of these structure won’t last much more than two-hundred years after people are gone. And the episode convincingly portrays the ravages of time by way of computer-generated effects.

The centerpiece of the episode is an extended tour of Hashima Island, in Japan. Nicknamed “Battleship Island” (because of its shape), it was once a town of thousands built around a coal mine. But it was abruptly deserted thirty-five years ago and has been without humanity ever since. As a result, Hashima Island is a case study in how concrete and steel structures withstand the elements – particularly those of a marine environment.  If there’s a reason to watch the episode, it’s the Hashima Island segment.

The segment features Brian Burke-Gaffney and the way the documentary puts the story of the island (with his help) is a little bit like this:

“35 years after the disappearence of people, homes, offices and factories are cracking and subsiding, as nature takes over. It’s a future that has already come to pass in one remote corner of the world. Several miles off the southwest coast of Japan a forsaken island stands lifeless and decaying. Hashima Island was once a thriving coal-mining town and homes to thousands of people. Now it’s abandoned offices and residcential buildings are literally exploding under nature’s relentless hands. Because of the unsafe conditions Hashima is strictly off limits to visitors. In the 1890s Japan’s Mitsubishi company began mining coal from the seafloor beneath Hashima. At its peak in 1959 the 15 acre island was home to more than 5000 workers and their families, the highest population density recorded on Earth. In 1974 as Japan began favouring petrloium over coal Mitsubishi closed the mine and relocated the entire population to the mainland. 35 years later, nothing remains but decayed buildings and ghostly memories. These rooms once echoed with the laughter of children playing, now all that remains is the corroded remains of their toys. Overgrown and forgotton the school playground in now rusting scrap metal. Hashima is a laboratory for showing what happens to reinforced concrete in a savage environment. Every year the typhoon season delivers rains and winds up to 100mph, wlilst huge ocean waves smash into buildings. Scienctific studies of concrete core samples reveal that the buildings most exposed to the ocean had a salt content 15 times greater than the others. The concrete buildings themselves gave the island a warlike profile and even a new nickname “Battleship Island”. The wooden fasades of balconies were quickly destroyed, the many passageways and stairs that connected the buildings are now falling apart.”

You can watch this here – “Life After People: The Bodies Left Behind”. The segment starts at roughly 19 minutes and 37 seconds.

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The Facts

Name: Hashima (端島), or most commonly known as Gunkanjima (軍艦島), meaning “Battleship Island”

English: Aerial Photo of Hashima Island (lower...

English: Aerial Photo of Hashima Island (lower left), Nagasaki City, Nagasaki, Japan, 1983. 日本語: 端島(左下):長崎県長崎市、東シナ海)(右上は中ノ島) (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Other nicknames: The Forbidden Island, The Ghost Island, Hell Island.

Ethymology: ‘Hashima’ means ‘Border Island’. ‘Gunkan’ meaning ‘battleship’, ‘jima’ being a form of ‘shima’, meaning ‘island’ – it was so called because of its resemblance to the former Imperial navy warship “Tosa”.

Located: 15 kilometres (9 miles) southwest from Nagasaki port, Nagasaki Prefecture, Japan.

Size: Surprisingly small – 480m long and 160m wide, overall 1.2-sq.-km. That’s roughly four football stadiums!

Population: Currently – 0. However, it was once the most densely populated city in the world. The population reached a peak of 5,259 in 1959 – a density of 835 people per 10,000 square metres (100m x 100m) for the whole island, or 1,391 people per 10,000 square metres in the residential district alone. Even by today’s standards, those buildings packed a lot of people. According to the latest Demographia report on world urban areas, Dhaka, Bangladesh, fits nearly 45,000 people per square kilometer. Gunkanjima, with roughly 5,000 people in one-fifteenth of a kilometer, would beat that by a lot — as well as Mumbai, Hong Kong, Bogota and Karachi, some of the modern world’s other super-dense cities.

Real or man-made?: Both. Before it was discovered, it was merely a rock reef. However, the dirt from the coal mining was thrown out around the small island and soon was shaped the way it is today.

Timetable of Battleship Island:

1810 – Coal was discovered on the reef.

1882 – Magotaro Nabeshima, the master of the former Nabeshima Han declared possession.

1887 – Nabeshima started building the first shaft.

1890 – Mitsubishi acquired the mine for 100 yen.

1895 – The second shaft was built.

1896 – The third shaft was built.

1897 – Yahata steel was established.

1904 – The Russo-Japanese war started.

1907 – An undersea cable from Takashima was drawn.

1914 – WWI started.

1916 – Japan’s first apartment house was built.

1921 – The Nagasaki Nichi Nichi Newspaper called the island ‘Battleship Island’.

1923 – The fourth shaft was built.

1938 – An undersea telephone line was established.

1939 – WWII started. Korean coal miners were brought to the island.

1941 – A record amount of 411.1 thousand tons of coal was mined in one year.

1945 – An atomic bomb was dropped on Nagasaki. The war ended.

1946 – A labour union was established on the island.

1948 – The population on the island reached 4526.

1950 – The Korean War started.

1957 – An undersea water pipeline was completed.

1958 – Became the first in the nation to have tv sets and refrigerators.

1959 – The population reached 5259.

1964 – A gas fire accident happened. The mines were closed for one year.

1965 – A new mine was discovered.

1973 – Mining stopped as of December.

1974 – The mines were officially closed on January 15.

2005 – From August 23, landing on the island is permitted to journalists only.

2009 – Travel to the island was re-opened on April 22.

References:

Burke-Gaffney, Brian, (1996). “Hashima: The Ghost Island”, Crossroads: A Journal of Nagasaki History and Culture (UWOSH). 4:33–52.

Kobayashi, Shunichiro, (2004). “No Man’s Land, Gunkanjima. Japan Deathtopia Series”. Tokyo: Kodansha.

Gunkanjima: The Forbidden island as seen by the rest of the world

English: Gunkanjima

English: Gunkanjima (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

A small island off the coast of south-western Japan named Hashima, or Gunkanjima (Battleship Island), used to be a coal mining facility topped by a monstrous maze of buildings. In the 60′s, it was the most densely populated location on Earth.

Abandoned in 1974, the Battleship Island turned into a Ghost Island and soon became one of the most famous spots for urban exploration. The island is increasingly gaining international attention not only generally for its modern regional heritage, but also for the housing complex remnants representative of the Taishō period [1912-1926] to the Shōwa period [1926-1989] of Japanese history. It has become a frequent subject of discussion among enthusiasts for ruins.
The sheer quantity of photographs of abandoned buildings and the frequency with which they are created testifies not to how easy they are to produce, or to the fact that they have become a cliché, but to the depth of our fascination with seeing our world destroyed.
In an oft-quoted line from Walter Benjamin’s essay “The Work of Art in the Age of Its Mechanical Reproducibility”, Benjamin states that modern humanity’s “self-alienation” has become so intense “that it can experience its own destruction as an aesthetic pleasure of the first order.”

Humans have become so unconcerned with their own-long term wellbeing that they can now watch the world around them being destroyed – and even enjoy it as spectacle. It should not be surprising, then, that architectural obliteration, and the unrealized futures that every one of those buildings implies, should be one of the most perennial themes discussed by travelling bloggers.

Photographs shared by urban explorers of Gunkanjima do not just document the physical details of a location but also help to place the location in a much larger history of social change. The hulking blast furnaces, apartments, and hospital wards are bookmarks of often incomprehensibly vast economic processes; they give shape to an industrial history of this continent. Given time, we could track larger shifts – the outsourcing of manufacturing, transformations in consumer goods, the disappearance of mass assembly lines – through the spatial residues of these very buildings. Taken together, it might be more accurate to say that tourists who set foot on Gunkanjima are historians, not photographers at all – their textbooks visual, their evidence not cited but expertly composed in black and white.

By keeping a blog, I will make frequent updates throughout the six weeks of the SURE [Sheffield Undergraduate Research Experience] project, researching travellers’ interactions with the island, their impressions and opinions. I will compare travellers’ notes and experiences, to see if tourism in Gunkanjima could be classified as either dark tourism [exploring sites associated with death and tragedy] or disaster tourism [traveling to disaster areas as an act of curiosity], and if it bears any similarities to European or American discourses of ruins. I will explore how Gunkanjima’s ruins are portrayed in popular culture and contemporary art and how that portrayal is in tone with the urban exploration essence – “going places one shouldn’t go”.

Reference:

Benjamin, Walter, (1968). Hannah Arendt. ed. “The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction”, Illuminations. London: Fontana. pp. 214–218.