Japan will probably be seeing many more, but “Mujo Sobyo” beats all others as the first documentary on the aftermath of the Great Eastern Japan Earthquake and tsunami. A 75-minute film shot and made in 50 days and now playing at the Auditorium Shibuya theater in Tokyo (with screenings in Osaka and Nagoya to follow), “Mujo Sobyo (The Sketch of Mujo)” is as simple and unpretentious as its title.
Director Koichi Omiya says that he had wanted to complete and deliver the film as soon as possible. “In a way, I was driven by a need to keep the memory of the disaster intact,” he says. “Which is strange, because the landscape is so devastated you’d think the visual memory would haunt the mind forever. On the other hand, there was a part of me that thought, or rather knew, that unless I got everything down on film, it would get distorted, or huge chunks of memory would fade away.”
The 53-year-old filmmaker (“Tadaima: Sorezore no Ibasho,” “September, 11″), who was born in Kuji in Tohoku’s Iwate Prefecture and spent his childhood moving around in Iwate and Yamagata prefectures, says that this disaster struck him with particular force, partly because the northeast is the land of his birth and largely because his parents still live there.
“They’re both old and feeble, and my mother had to go into a senior citizens’ home,” says Omiya. “They were spared the disaster but are plagued by other problems. They have their own issues of mujō.”
Mujō is a Buddhist concept, meaning “transience” or “impermanence.” From time immemorial, the Japanese have deployed it to explain tragedies great and small, to alleviate the sadness of separation and death and to remind themselves that after all, this world is but a stepping stone on the path to achieving nirvana.
“This is a country of disasters,” says Omiya. “We go through such rapid cycles of change and destruction, and I suppose that in the process, the Japanese wound up with a short memory span. It’s not possible to remember everything, because so much is happening all the time. Forgetting is a way of self-protection. How else are we to cope?
“But in the case of the 3/11 disaster, I wanted to extend that memory, for six months at least. That’s why I rushed the film to a theater opening as soon as I could.”
The release of “Mujo Sobyo” coincides with the 100th day since the disaster; according to Buddhist rites, this is the day when the living may let go of sorrow, pick up the pieces and carry on.
Though Omiya divested so much of himself into the project, he keeps his own voice muted. Rather than inject his own outlook and experiences, and most of all his memories of growing up in the Tohoku region, he prefers to let his interviewees do the talking — for as long or as little as they want.
There’s a woman who says she can’t face living by the sea anymore, for another tsunami will surely sweep everything away again. There’s her bright-eyed granddaughter, who says she loves the ocean anyway and that the disaster can’t change that. There’s an old man whose dialect is so heavy and his sobbing so hard, it’s difficult to understand his words, apart from the fact that he lost everyone and everything.
“When I thought about it,” says Omiya, “I saw that the only way to be of any help was to listen to what these people had to say and to accept their words and emotions.”
Omiya says he likes “old faces” that bear the hallmarks of long years of toil and effort. And the often incomprehensible Tohoku dialect is dear to his heart.
“Tohoku people don’t assert themselves or give vent to their feelings,” he says. “Men especially are just not used to self-expression. And I can understand that — which is why I didn’t want to personalize this documentary in any way. This film is about acceptance; it’s not about solutions or provoking pity.
“I know every documentarian has his own agenda and good documentaries are calculated to draw out certain words from the interviewees, which in turn are calculated to resonate with the viewers. But for this film, I wanted to forego all calculation. To just be there, with these people, in the here and now.”