On Aug. 7, 1945, the artist Iri Maruki, having read about the bombing the day before, set out on an arduous journey from the countryside in central Japan to his birthplace, Hiroshima. His wife Toshi, also a painter, joined him there after three days. Three years later, unable to forget, to understand or to explain what they had absorbed, the Marukis began to work together on a mural that they hoped would lay the unimaginable memories to rest. It became, instead, the beginning of a continuing collaborative effort.

The remarkable story of the Marukis is told effectively, unsensationally, in "Hellfire: A Journey From Hiroshima," an hour-long film that airs tonight at 11 (WETA, Channel 26). It is a story of simple, hardheaded courage, of self-discovery and spiritual development.

The display of that first mural, painted at a time when the policy of the American Occupation was to discourage public discussion of the atomic bomb, brought the Marukis into contact with hundreds of Hiroshima and Nagasaki survivors who wanted to make their experiences known. After that, it was "one mural after another," Iri Maruki says. The Marukis became locally and then internationally famous for their artistic obsession.

Toshi Maruki, born in 1912, was trained in the western tradition of oil painting; using live models, she would paint realistic figures in tortured clusters. (One of the more touching moments in the film shows her setting a pair of men's shorts aflame over an open fire, and then with encouraging laughter fitting the charred remnants on a young male model.) Iri Maruki, born in 1901, was trained in the Japanese tradition of sumi ink painting; his role was to apply washes around and atop Toshi's figures.

Before spreading the inks, "he would say, 'That's too clear,' " Toshi Maruki recalls. Aghast, she would then repaint the figures, and the process of obscuring and clarifying the images would continue. By now their individual roles are not so clearly differentiated. The husband describes himself as "selfish" and his wife as "stubborn." "If we got along too well," he says, "our work would suffer."

The results of this unusual collaboration are extraordinary. The murals are big in size, insight and impact. If I have a quarrel with the film it is that, despite numerous moving close-ups of the works, viewers are never given the chance to explore at leisure the cumulative impact of a single mural, the beauty and the pain of single events combined to make a powerful whole. But the camerawork is fine; we do get the idea and then some.

During the '50s and '60s the murals traveled in Japan and abroad. In 1967 a gallery for permanent display, paid for by public subscription, was erected adjacent to the Marukis' home in a Tokyo suburb. In 1970, during their first visit to the United States, the artists were forced to confront their anger toward Americans. "We found a chauvinism deep inside {ourselves}," Toshi Maruki says, "the same {as that of the Japanese} extreme right wing." An American professor asked, "What would you do if a Chinese artist painted the Rape of Nanking and brought it to Japan?"

Thereafter the Marukis broadened their subject -- it became the slaughters of the 20th century. They painted the 1937 Rape of Nanking, during which Japanese soldiers killed many, many thousands of Chinese soldiers and citizens -- an unpopular subject in Japan. They painted the killings of American prisoners in Hiroshima after the bomb. They traveled to Europe to research and paint the Holocaust. In 1983 they painted "Hellfire," a vision of the century's generic violence.

Witnessing the results of war is the Marukis' impassioned specialty, rather than telling how to achieve on this globe a state of no war. Except as Toshi Maruki concluded one of her illustrated children's books: "If people don't drop the bomb, it will not fall.