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At Tokyo Film Fest, Japan’s 3/11 Earthquake/Tsunami is Front and Center

At Tokyo Film Fest, Japan's 3/11 Earthquake/Tsunami is Front and Center

At the Tokyo International Film Festival, now under way, the impact on Japan of the 3/11 Great East Japan Earthquake is front and center. Liza Foreman reports from Tokyo.

In the documentary Fukushima Hula Girls, director Masaki Kobayashi gives an unusual perspective on the earthquake and tsunami that devastated northeast Japan in March 2011. The film follows a displaced troupe of hula dancers who worked for a popular Hawaiian resort that was shut down in the wake of the nearby Fukushima nuclear plant explosion. Going some way to fill in the gaps on how the disaster impacted local lives, the documentary is one of a number of films playing at this week’s Tokyo International Film Festival (TIFF, October 22-30) to focus on the tragedy. Tetsuaki Matsue’s feature Tokyo Drifter shows the city at its most vulnerable, immediately following the earthquake, when a young musician wanders the empty streets.

Various Japanese officials made the trek to the festival this year, including new Prime Minister Yoshihiko Noda, who sought to mark the country’s efforts to recover both psychologically and physically from 3/11. “As you all know, we had a terrible tragedy on March 11th, the Great East Japan Earthquake, yet we had so much warm support from all over the world,” said Noda on opening night. “We also had a lot of support from the film industry as well, which was led by Mr. Jackie Chan himself, and I, representing the government of Japan, wish to humbly thank him,” he added. Chan was on stage to present a special opening night screening of his film 1911.

The PM went on to talk about the power of film for the recovery efforts and how it had encouraged him to do what he does, citing Mr. Smith Goes to Washington as inspiration. For her part Mika Morishita, head of the festival market TIFFCOM, welcomed the 226 exhibitors and 700 buyers who attended against all odds. “We thought that people might not come because of fears of radiation but we have had a record turn out,” she said.

Indeed from Japan regulars such as British producer Jeremy Thomas (13 Assassins, Hara-Kiri: Death of a Samurai), or Amir Naderi, the director of the Yazuki title CUT (the duo presented a joint workshop on working in Japan), to new directors such as Edmund Yeo, a Tokyo-based Malaysian director whose short films have played Venice and Pusan, it seemed there was no stopping fans of all things Japanese. “I much prefer working in Japan to Malaysia because it gives me such a sense of calm and ease because it is so quiet here, and in Malaysia we are much louder and spontaneous,” said Yeo whose short film, Exhalation played here.

The disaster is also on full view at TIFFCOM. One highlight of the Sendai television channel line-up is a weekly TV series called Sandwichman’s Bon-Yaree-Nu TV, featuring two comedians who visit the disaster region in order to cheer up the locals. On the day the earthquake struck, the duo were shooting their comedy show in Kesennuma, where large sections of the city were destroyed. They have since made it their mission to “make the surviving victims of the earthquake laugh once again.”

A series of programs on the Great East Japan Earthquake are also being sold by the national broadcaster NHK. Surviving the Tsunami uses footage shot by NHK showing how people survived. The Line Between Life and Death looks at the psychological impact of the tragedy in Yuriage where 800 people died. And in the documentary Radiation – Fighting the Invisible Enemy, the residents of a town situated just beyond the government’s no-go area around Fukushima are forced to abandon their agricultural way of life and must decide whether to stay or go.

Elsewhere around the festival, the talk was of other tragedies. Thai director Pan-Ek Ratanaruang presented the Asian premiere of his psychological drama, Headshot, a story of political corruption, which revolves around a man who begins to see the world upside down. He used the opportunity to criticize the Thai government for their response to the worst flooding to have hit Thailand in 50 years. “The government is doing a brilliant job of hiding information,“ he said. “People are really suffering. The film is more relevant today because the corruption is worse. The politicians who corrupt in my country are far cleverer than before. Corruption used to be done behind closed doors. Now, they are more proud because they can do it and we can’t. They just legalize it first.”

TIFF also screened a selection of festival films in hard-hit Sendai, including the official opener The Three Musketeers. In Tokyo, Mila Jovovich, Paul W.S. Anderson, Logan Lerman and producer Martin Moszkowicz were on hand to present the film. “We are so proud to be here tonight. It’s so amazing. I love Japan. I only wish I could stay for longer than 36 hours,” said Jovovich. “Well done, Mr. Yoda, for keeping the spirit of the festival live,” added Anderson, addressing the festival chairman, Tom Yoda who was wearing his customary green suit, in keeping with the festival’s dedicated focus to all things green.

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