Isamu Hirabayashi is an incredibly versatile man. The 39-year-old Shizuoka native’s day job is to direct TV commercials, and he normally works on five or six projects at the same time. Since 2002, he has also been active as a filmmaker, with his short films being shown at numerous festivals overseas, such as at Cannes and Sundance.
Following the March 11 quake and tsunami and the meltdowns at Fukushima No. 1 Nuclear Power Plant last year, however, Hirabayashi says he found himself jobless for months, as corporate sponsors pulled their TV ads and stopped commissioning people like him to make new ones. So he decided to devote his free time to creating his first short animated film, “663114.”
Little did he imagine back then that the movie would win a “special mention” award — the second-place winner — in a category of films selected by a youth jury, called Generation 14plus, at last month’s Berlin International Film Festival.
“I was surprised because I wasn’t aiming for an award, and also because I didn’t make the film for children; I made it for adults,” he tells The Japan Times. “The Berlin film festival is known for its political nature, and that might be why my film appealed to the jury.”
In fact, he explains, the eight-minute animation, which features a cicada as the only character, was born out of his own fears and concerns on the effects of radiation that has leaked from the Fukushima plant.
In the film, the cicada, which has spent 66 years underground since the end of World War II, emerges from the ground and steadfastly climbs up a tree. It keeps on moving up the tree, even in the face of a mega-quake, a tsunami and nuclear meltdowns. The title “663114″ stands for “66″ years, “3/11″ and the “4″ reactors that went awry at Fukushima.
While the grotesque transformation of the cicada after being exposed to radiation is probably the most eye-catching element of the movie, Hirabayashi, a father of two kids aged 1 and 5, says his focus lies elsewhere: the Japanese citizens who would not change their daily routines in the wake of the worst nuclear disaster in history. Also, the movie features various hanko seals in the background, symbolizing the ills of a contract-based society that Japan has built since the end of World War II, he says.
“The Japanese are trying to go about their usual routine, even when they are facing a horrific situation,” he says. “It might be part of our defense mechanism, but I feel that the Japanese public is trying to put (the negative events) behind them by forgetting. And the mindless, contract-based society of the past 66 years has manifested its limits.”
Hirabayashi says that the March 11 disasters have dramatically changed his outlook on life, as well as his stance as a filmmaker.
Hirabayashi’s post-3/11 views on life and death can be observed in another movie he has made, titled “Matou” (“Dress”). The live-action film is included in “311 Ashita (Tomorrow),” an anthology of short films made by 41 filmmakers in tribute to the disaster survivors. Screening for the first time at the Sendai Short Film Festival last September, the omnibus features 41 films, each of which lasts for three minutes and 11 seconds. Hirabayashi’s part begins with one skinny, emotionless lady dressed in a yūrei (ghost) costume, complete with a white kimono and a triangle hood. Then she disrobes and morphs into an old lady, then into a middle-aged woman. She keeps on changing her costumes, looking younger and younger — until she sits on the floor with a bib and a rubber pacifier in her mouth. Finally, the model is naked and facing the floor in a fetal position, before she vanishes. Hirabayashi says he wanted to convey the futility and instability of life through the film.
“On March 11, some people were washed away by the tsunami after living their lives for 90 years, while others had just been born,” he says. “We often talk about ‘life,’ assuming that we live for 70 or 80 years, but it’s very different from what happens in reality. Every person has a different life span. And life is not at all like how we imagine it to be.”
The Brillia Short Shorts Theater in Yokohama’s Minatomirai district will screen “663114″ and “311 Ashita (Tomorrow)” on March 10-11. The theater is also running a program of six foreign short films themed on kizuna (bonds) through the end of March, with another program of four Japanese short films themed on families from March 16 till April 15. For more information, visit www.brillia-sst.jp.