The 'survivor's guilt' that swept Japan a year ago bit hard into anyone armed with a camera
Like many Japanese, Tatsuya Mori was under a cloud of depression immediately after last year’s earthquake-tsunami disaster. Then a journalist friend, Takeharu Watai, invited him along on a trip to the devastated area.
Mori, a documentary maker and author who’s best known for the films “A” and “A2” about the Aum Shinrikyo cult that released poison gas in the Tokyo subway system in 1995, didn’t want to go. But then he changed his mind. He had no intention of making a movie about the scene he found, but then created “311”, a disturbing ramble through Tohoku 15 days after the catastrophe.
It was screened last week at the Salaya International Documentary Film Festival in Nakhon Pathom and will be seen again in Bangkok tomorrow.
Mori, director Yojyu Matsubayashi and producer Takaharu Yasuoka headed with Watai toward the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear plant, armed with masks, tape to seal up their clothing and a dosimeter to measure the radiation level.
Eight kilometres from the Fukushima no-go zone, their car had a puncture, forcing them to head instead for Iwate, a city 50 kilometres from the ocean but equally wrecked, full of citizens sifting through debris and searching for missing relatives.
“I’d seen a lot of footage on TV of the disaster, but that was just ‘one frame’,” Mori told me. “When we actually went to the areas, we saw everything 360 degrees.
“In a video you can’t smell what you see. There was a strange smell in those areas. When a strong wind blew it was very noisy. They can’t broadcast those kinds of things on television.”
In Kesennuma without electricity for their camera lights, the film crew could only spend the night looking around, smelling the smell, hearing the sound. “We felt everything around us. I can’t use words to explain that feeling.”
He said Watai – who’d shot footage in Iraq and been through much strife – was overwhelmed by the destruction in his own homeland.
“I had no idea what to do about the filming – my mind was a blank,” Mori said. “But when I came back and started editing, I started to see the theme.”
The theme was guilt.
“On the day of the earthquake I was drinking beer with my friends in Roppongi. Thousands of people lost their lives, but I was drinking beer. I didn’t know what was happening at the time, but when I realised, I was ashamed. I felt guilty.”
One television report was about a woman who clung to her mother’s hand in the tsunami deluge until the current pulled them apart. Only the daughter survived.
“Survivors always feel guilty,” Mori said. “‘Why did I survive? Why couldn’t I save my mother?’ We call it ‘survivor’s guilt’. I think this time all Japanese people felt survivor’s guilt. We were all survivors – we had places to sleep, food to eat.”
Dealing with the guilt was especially difficult when confronted with the victims in the disaster areas. “Right in front of me people were crying because they’d lost their families. I didn’t know what to ask them or even if I should be recording. I felt guilty being part of the news media.
“Whenever there’s a big accident or disaster, we go to the scene and take video based on other people’s misfortunes. We look for the casualties. I started to think, ‘I should tell people about this feeling, this sense of guilt.’ And to do that, I decided we should start with ourselves – make films about ourselves.”
One scene in “311” shows Mori and his team drinking beer at their hotel after a day’s work. Other reporters were appalled when he screened it for them, but Mori explained he was trying to “express the meaning of guilt. We deliberately showed this because it’s about guilt.”
In another scene, a woman who’s lost her home and loved ones tells Mori, “There’s nowhere to take this anger out – there may have been ways they could have been saved!”
Mori replies, “Please feel free to take it out on me – that’s why I’m here.”
Filming in Tohoku, whose inhabitants are famed for their patience, Mori was impressed by a man who’d just lost his wife and yet was still willing to be interviewed. “From a news-media point of view we think, ‘How come this guy can still answer our questions?’
“But in the final scene there’s a family that’s furious, throwing sticks at us. I actually felt relieved at the time!”
Mori’s team was filming the removal of corpses. An official tried to stop them on behalf of the grieving families. “It’s very normal to get angry, of course,” Mori said. “If I were them I’d also be very angry.
“I told the family I was very sorry, but then I continued shooting. Even though I said sorry, I didn’t stop. The victims must have been a little confused: ‘Why did they say sorry but still continue to shoot?’
“It’s conflicting, but that’s the media’s role. We feel sorry – we don’t want to shoot, but we have to.”
Mori has returned to the affected areas many times, but the guilt has never ebbed.
“There’ve been big earthquakes in Haiti, in Wenchuan, China, and in Indonesia. We read the news and we feel very sorry to those people, but after that we just continue on with our normal lives. We don’t want to pay attention to those kinds of things. And I also felt guilty about that.
“If Japanese people started to think about conscience a bit more, the country would be better. It’s a country of collectivism – we all go in the same direction. We say, ‘Let’s try hard, let’s fight together!’
“But I think, instead, we should be thinking of things like guilt and conscience. That’s what I’ve tried to express in the film.”
Salaya Doc brings a selection of films to the Bangkok Art and Culture Centre this weekend, starting with “311” at 1pm tomorrow, followed by a talk with Fujioka Asako, director of Yamagata Documentary Film Festival, on the Japanese films concerning disasters.
Other films tomorrow are “Golden Slumbers”, about the lost classics of Cambodian cinema and “Repatriation” on the contentious South Korean subject of repatriating North Korean spies.
Sunday is devoted to the Director in Focus, China’s Xu Tong, screening his “Wheat Harvest”, about the sex industry in Beijing, and “Fortune Teller” and “Shattered”, about an itinerant disabled soothsayer and his disabled wife.
See the schedule at SalayaDoc.blog.com.