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Japanese Tsunami 2011

Hong Kong-raised film-maker’s documentary chronicles how football team Vegalta Sendai helped bond a community devastated by 2011 tsunami

Moving film a powerful exploration of power of sport to bring people together

PUBLISHED : Saturday, 15 April, 2017, 11:00am
UPDATED : Saturday, 15 April, 2017, 10:58pm

Vegalta Sendai were preparing to kick off their first ever season in Japan’s top division as the 2011 earthquake and tsunami struck their region.

Expected to battle relegation, the team instead went on a remarkable unbeaten run after the tragedy, powered by a determination among players and fans that they had to give something back to people of their province whose lives had been devastated. The following season, they went even better, challenging for the title until the very last day of the season.

It’s a story told in moving detail in Vegalta: Soccer, Tsunami and the Hope of a Nation, by filmmakers Geoff Trodd and Douglas Hurcombe.

Hurcombe and Hong Kong born-and-raised Trodd, whose father was a popular RTHK radio personality in the sixties, John Wallace, made several trips to the region, winning the trust and confidence of locals, many of whom had lost family members, and capturing some powerful interviews and archive footage.

“We only just touched the surface [of the disaster] through the lens of a football team – football was just the kind of vehicle or backdrop, but the stories of the people were what we wanted to tell,” says London-based Trodd, who with Hurcombe spent several years and most of their disposal income and free time to get the film completed.

“I’ve worked on other projects with fantastic budgets, but this was something we wanted to dedicate time to, we turned away work to get it done – it was a genuine labour of love.”

Fittingly, the idea occurred at a football match. Hurcombe’s Japanese wife had football-mad friends visiting who had been affected by the disaster; the Ipswich Town game they attended coincidentally was raising funds for tsunami victims. Learning about Vegalta from their friends, Trodd and Hurcombe decided they had to bring the story to a wider audience.

“The supporters being Japanese were culturally quite reserved and don’t like to beat their own drum, so it was a bit of an eye-opener for us that people were prepared to talk to us,” says Trodd, a freelance filmmaker by trade.

“The fans were a little stand-offish at first, but once they realised we weren’t there to exploit them or sensationalise the story, but tell their side of it and tell people what had happened, they really opened up.

“They’re a quite hardcore group [the fans], but they eventually let us in and we went and saw what they were doing in and around the community. That was the crux of the story, what the club and fans were doing for people who were suffering.”

Whole towns were washed away in the disaster and the film chronicles the efforts of players and fans to give something back to the people, from the immediate – the stadium used as an emergency aid depot – through ongoing efforts like training with local kids, community fund-raising, replacing village football pitches that had been washed away, etc.

And in Vegalta’s stadium a remarkable coming-together took place. A banner at the team’s first game read, “We won’t lose until Sendai is rebuilt”, and the players took that to heart. The club’s song (to the tune of ‘Take Me Home Country Road’) “became a message to the nation” says one fan, while another said the matches became “a precious moment when you forgot other worries”.

“Once we got out there and got our feet on the ground and had been to all the places which were hit hard, it really gave you real insight into what was happening out there,” says Trodd of his experience.

“It looked like old newsreels of Hiroshima, places like that, towns were completely wiped off the face of the earth, they lost 60 per cent of their population and will never be the same again.

“Partly because of Japanese cultural reserve they weren’t really asking for help, but also there was a general perception of Japan as a country, ‘They’ll be all right, they’re a first-world country, they’ll just get on with it.’

“The Fukushima [meltdown] really took the focus away from people who really suffered. The people in the tsunami were kind of forgotten – part of the driving force of the fans was to keep that memory alive and make sure people suffering weren’t being left behind, that was why they were so adamant that they wanted to rebuild.

“The team being Japanese felt honour-bound to keep that promise and started this amazing journey.”

Hurcombe and Trodd funded the film from their own pocket, with a little support from producer friends and the Sundance Institute. Cox gave a hefty discount for his narration, and leading musicians such as Godspeed You Black Emperor and Robert del Naja from Massive Attack donated tracks for free.

The film, which was recently screened by Japanese national broadcaster NHK, climaxes in Vegalta’s final game of the 2012 season, when victory over Sanfrecce Hiroshima would have given them the title. It’s a bravura sequence, brilliantly cut together to the Godspeed track.

“So many people came and gave us the help,” adds Trodd. “The J.League supplied archive footage and we wanted to capture that match and reverse engineer the story. We needed to bring out the drama, fans were so driving the team on ... it was the sheer force of fans’ support that kept them in the game.”

The directors and producers all played on the same football side together and Trodd says that sense of teamwork helped them to push through and complete the film when it appeared that it might fall apart.

“These projects don’t come along that often and you either commit to them or you don’t and you have to be quite realistic about the sacrifice you have to put in to realise them,” he adds. “We were really determined because of the story we wanted to tell and the weight of responsibility we felt because of the way the fans and club and people took us in and gave us access.

“In fact, the most remarkable tsunami footage was donated to us by people from their personal archive – in one scene people didn’t make it.”

Vegalta: Soccer, Tsunami and the Hope of a Nation, is now available on DVD and on Vimeo.