Nicknamed “The Photographer of Death,” Kuniaki Kimura took photographs of over 300 executions and is said to have asked executioners to hold their poses a number of times before finally allowing them to end the prisoners’ lives. His photographs were published in nationalist newspapers throughout Japan and won numerous prizes for photojournalism and a medal of courage from the Emperor of Japan. Kimura’s most famous photograph, a 13 x 18 cm black and white photograph capturing ten Japanese soldiers, their faces expressionless, in the process of shooting at a group of hooded Chinese civilians standing at the edge of what seems to be shallow graves, was nominated by the Japanese press for the Pulitzer Prize for Photography, only to be edged out by Frank Noel’s “Water” in 1943. The Japanese population, in a frenzy, burned newspapers with Kimura’s photographs printed inside, in a misguided attempt to make a statement that Japan will not tolerate being number two, that Japan believes they are equal, if not better than the Western world. Kimura’s photographs of World War II are now rare and have since disappeared from public memory.
Kimura unfazed at placing as runner-up, took more then a thousand rolls of film from 1942 to 1944, taking assignments from Imperial Army Major Itohiro Yurosabe, who admired Kimura’s passion for capturing life and death on film. Yurosabe wrote in his journal, published posthumously in 1961 by an obscure Belgian publisher, that Kimura’s attention to detail, his precise camerawork, and his gall to pose prisoners for their execution, was almost like playing God except that he was Death in a beautiful Japanese corporeal form. Yet Yurosabe also wrote of Kimura’s histrionic temper tantrums if the prisoner did not fall the way he wanted after the execution and questioned Kimura’s psychological stability. There are unconfirmed reports of Kimura probing deceased prisoners, the models of his photo-shoot, and striking their bodies in anger and frustration.
Yurosabe, in his journal, dated a week after Operation Ichi-Go, recounts a story that Kimura had told him. Kimura, traveling to another camp to take photographs of an execution that was to be held the next day, marched alongside a platoon transferring to the very same camp he was assigned to, located twenty-five miles northwest of their previous position. About two hours after sundown, Yurosabe writes, after a deafening bang, Kimura watched three soldiers in front of him fly into the air and Kimura felt himself knocked back a few feet from where he had been walking. Yurosabe writes of Kimura’s confusion and curiosity and fear and anger, but strangely emphasizes the photographer’s fascination with death, describing his facial expressions while recounting his brief and stinted encounter with the National Revolutionary Army. Yurosabe noted Kimura’s vicious wolf-like eyes and rabid, drooling mouth while describing the corpses that lay from the mortar shell that had landed just meters from him, and of his exaggerated gestures while reenacting his heroics – which presumably were the heroics of the faceless, nameless soldiers that have since long disappeared – that night. Kimura is said to have waited next to the corpses, not letting field surgeons or field medics near the bodies, for the sun to rise again so that he would have enough natural light to take the photographs he needed.
In February of 1944, Kimura was sent to Ulsan to photograph an execution squad in Korea, where approximately 1700 Koreans were, under the order of one General Gunichi Umehara, scheduled to be executed, waited in groups of 100 with twenty Japanese soldiers assigned to each group. Yurosabe, in his journal, concerned for Kimura, as he had never cataloged such a large number of executions in a day, questions if Kimura would be able to maintain his professionalism. Kimura, according to official documents, arrived in Ulsan by train a week after receiving his assignment and was reported to have been in good spirits, as he was seen, from eyewitness accounts, joking with officers, visiting landmarks, and signing photographs for soldiers who wanted to send something back home. The execution order finally came from General Umehara five days after Kimura’s arrival, to which Kimura gathered approximately sixty pounds of materials necessary for the extensive photography sessions and headed to the city limits, where the mass executions were to take place, with his new assistant, Yi Chul-yong, a Korean sympathetic to the Japanese cause.
Kimura returned to Manchuria eighteen days after arriving in Ulsan. Yurosabe, in his last journal entry (Yurosabe was killed in a car accident two days later), describes Kimura’s changed demeanor and describes his once-piercing eyes as dull and vacant, as if Kimura wasn’t there, his mind cast in a faraway place, where no one could ever reach him.
A total of 1,800 individual photos taken by Kimura, as was noted in the official directory, were sent back to Tokyo for review. Unfortunately, no publisher has ever recorded receiving the photographs and all 1,800 photographs are considered a casualty of the war.
Although Kimura was known for his execution photography, there is one photograph that stands out as his most experimental work. It was published in a Japanese magazine that had (coincidentally) published Yukio Mishima the previous year. The photograph, 13 x 18, in color, of which a man and his wife, presumably Chinese, as Kimura was stationed in China for an uninterrupted number of years, are seen side by side, in the center of the photograph, looking directly at the photographer, faces stern, as a Japanese flag waved in the wind some distance in the background, was described in the magazine as Kimura’s most experimental, minimalist, and nationalist photograph. This was, of course, at the pinnacle of his career (1944), where he experimented with elements of photography, although without the mainstream reception of his previous works. His decision to proceed with experimentation, however, backfired and his followers lost faith in his ability, believing the execution photographs had taken a toll on his mental health for good. Kimura, in 1944, stopped taking assignments, ultimately resigning from his post. Little is known about his activities during this period.
Kuniaki Kimura’s photographic trail ends after 1944, but it is known that he had left China shortly before the war was over to go back to Japan to publish a short book of stories concerning his experiences in China, which ultimately went widely unread and ignored by his former admirers.