Japanese Tsunami 2011

Japanese earthquake and tsunami films

The earthquake and tsunami that hit Japan in 2011 were filmed extensively as they were happening. Now, dramatised versions of the devastation are garnering mixed reviews, writes Mark Schilling

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 09 June, 2013, 12:00am
UPDATED : Thursday, 11 June, 2015, 3:58pm

The Great East Japan Earthquake on March 11, 2011, was one of the most intensely covered natural disasters in history. Within half an hour after the 9.0 magnitude quake hit the northern Tohoku region, public broadcaster NHK had helicopters in the air, filming the huge tsunami that swept the coast and left nearly 19,000 people missing or dead and forced some 340,000 victims to evacuate.

After that, reporting by the national and foreign media was extensive and continuous, including coverage of the explosions from meltdowns at the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear plant.

In their collaborative documentary 311, however, Tatsuya Mori, Yojyu Matsubayashi, Takeharu Watai and Takaharu Yoshioka violated the unwritten taboo against filming the dead, incurring the anger of survivors on the scene

Japanese filmmakers also reacted quickly to the disaster - but their angle of approach often differed from that of the local mass media, which tended to follow the government line, while taking care never to show the bodies of victims. In their collaborative documentary 311, however, Tatsuya Mori, Yojyu Matsubayashi, Takeharu Watai and Takaharu Yoshioka violated the unwritten taboo against filming the dead, incurring the anger of survivors on the scene.

They were also criticised for what some saw as insensitivity.

The many 3/11 documentaries - the 2011 Yamagata International Documentary Film Festival screened 29 and more have appeared since - have had varied takes on the disaster. For example, American filmmaker Stu Levy's Pray for Japan (2012), whose coverage is based on his own experiences as a disaster volunteer, is determinedly non-political. "It's the story of unknown heroes," he says on the film's website.

On the other hand, Atsushi Funahashi's Nuclear Nation (2012), which examines the devastation and dislocation in a small town near the Fukushima plant, is fiercely anti-nuclear (as is the town's one-time pro-plant mayor). It is a film with a villain: Tokyo Electric Power Company, the utility that managed the plant - and indirectly caused the town's ruin.

But the massive, frustrating effort to recover bodies (more than 3,000 still remain missing) and cremate them according to Japanese custom has not been a focus of 3/11 documentaries for the most part so far, which is not surprising given the sensitivity of the subject and the difficulty of filming it.

The first film to squarely address this theme, Ryoichi Kimizuka's Reunion, is a docudrama based on the reportage of journalist Kota Ishii. Set in Kamaishi, Iwate Prefecture - one of the towns hardest hit by the tsunami - the film centres on Tsuneo Aiba (Toshiyuki Nishida), an elderly volunteer who once worked at a town funeral home.

Shocked by conditions at the temporary morgue - with mud-caked bodies dumped haphazardly by numbed and exhausted rescue workers - Aiba sets out to prepare the corpses properly for cremation and to comfort the relatives who have come to identify them.

More by compassionate example than angry words, he persuades shocked city bureaucrats to help. And he speaks to the dead as though they are still alive - and so others also come to see them as human beings again.

This may sound like Departures, the 2008 Yojiro Takita drama about a reluctant funeral director that won a foreign-language film Oscar. But Kimizuka, who also scripted the film, and producer Chihiro Kameyama, now managing director of the Fuji TV network, are veteran hit-makers responsible for the smash Bayside Shakedown cop thriller TV and film series.

On Reunion they take a more straightforward approach than Takita did in the entertaining, if heart-rending, Departures.

To be sure, well-known veteran actors appear in the lead roles in Reunion, beginning with Nishida as Aiba. But they are not asked to do much but react to the horrors they see around them - and Aiba's earnest efforts to alleviate them.

This may be true to life - or rather the version of it that Ishii reported in his book - but it is not easy to watch, given not only the film's stark realism (the make-up artists who prepared the "dead" deserve an Academy Award), but also the slow progress Aiba and his colleagues make against the rising tide of corpses, as distraught relatives mourn and, in early scenes, rage.

Tears come, as they did in Departures, but not all may be able to wait for the third-act catharsis.

Despite the promise of the producers to donate the film's profits to disaster victims, Reunion earned only 370 million yen (HK$29 million) following its February 23, 2012, release, compared to 6.48 billion yen for Departures.

Some critics were harsh (one anonymous poster on the 2Channel chat site called it a "trumped-up documentary - nothing but a fraud") but audience ratings were mostly positive. The 331 fans who posted about Reunion on the popular film site gave it a collective four stars out of five.

Getting rougher treatment was Sion Sono's The Land of Hope, a 3/11-themed drama released in Japan in October 2012. Based on the filmmaker's own script, the work examines the plight of two families in the same rural neighbourhood who find themselves on opposite sides of an exclusion zone after a near-future nuclear disaster much like the one at Fukushima.

Sono uses the Kafka-esque situation, with hazmat-suited workers stolidly setting up a fence straight through one family's farm, to not only comment on bureaucratic obstinacy and human stupidity (with no one in power apparently having learned anything from the Fukushima disaster), but also to reveal the raw emotions of victims that the media often omit in favour of their narrative of Japanese "stoicism".

Despite being screened at the Toronto, Dubai and Chicago festivals and winning a Mainichi Film Concours prize for Isao Natsuyagi's impassioned performance as an embattled farmer, The Land of Hope was ranked as the year's worst in the Eiga Geijutsu film magazine's annual critics' poll. One critic, Ken Terawaki, explained his decision by stating that "Sono is a good director, but … making a film so soon after such a big, shocking disaster is just shallow".

The Eiga Geijutsu critics, however, are prone to slate Japanese films that outsiders praise. Another case in point: Departures got their vote for worst Japanese film of 2008.

Will they similarly slate Reunion? It has had few foreign kudos, although it premiered at last year's Montreal World Film Festival. It also will not be voted on until the end of this year, when critics may not be as sensitive to the "earliness" of its release.

Still another reason why The Land of Hope may escape Eiga Geijutsu's wrath: whatever its faults, no one can call the painfully serious film exploitation. Like Aiba, it gives the dead of 3/11 the respect that they deserve.

Reunion, June 11 and June 21, 9.30pm, The Grand Cinema. Part of the Hong Kong Japanese Film Showcase