Looking for comfort in art following the Great East Japan Earthquake


Special To The Japan Times

In her film “Heart of a Dog,” the American artist Laurie Anderson explores loss as exemplified by the death of a loved one. A recurring theme is the attack on the World Trade Center on Sept. 11, 2001, an incident that profoundly changed the way New Yorkers like Anderson confronted their environment. “It was like a door opening,” she says at one point, “and there was no going back.”

This sense of traumatic transformation also runs through the art that has been produced in response to the Great East Japan Earthquake, where the sea, a source of life and livelihood for the people who lived along the coasts of Fukushima, Iwate and Miyagi prefectures, suddenly became a deliverer of death. Art has had a tough time doing justice to the scope of that concept, since it was captured so graphically and immediately on video that went global. The purpose of much 3/11 art is to provide a human dimension to a catastrophe that was both natural and man-made in that the tsunami generated by the earthquake destroyed a nuclear power plant that was not sufficiently prepared for such an eventuality. The disaster is still with us.

In the Kamakaji Lab theater company’s play “Radio 311,” performed earlier this month at the Tokyo Metropolitan Theater to commemorate the fifth anniversary of the disaster, an ungainfully employed young Tokyo man returns to his apartment to find a group of damp spirits gathered around his radio. They died in the tsunami but cannot proceed to the next world until they find out about loved ones. By conveying directly this sense of loss, the play clarifies the young man’s prerogatives. The awkwardly titled musical, “Care Wave Aid,” extends the idea to childhood and then expands on the message. Staged several years ago, the musical featured actual children from the affected area who survived the tsunami and wanted to explain what their experience had taught them. They lost “lives of normality,” an assertion that echoes Anderson, but while that experience was felt and is expressed individually, the musical attempts to show how many children in the world suffer from “disaster” on a daily basis and thus have no normality to begin with. Just as compassion was the natural reaction toward victims of the quake and tsunami, the children want the world to recognize the trauma of others who live with loss every day.

Sion Sono’s “The Land of Hope” (2012), the first non-documentary feature film about the disaster, places the onus of tragedy on the nuclear meltdown as it affects two families. Loss in this case is in the realm of economic comfort — both families lose their farms — and kizuna, a word meaning “bonds” or “community” that became especially loaded after the tragedy. Though Sono’s methods are allegorical and his purposes critical, the film’s visual component is all about loss, since it is set in a place devoid of life and color. In his earlier film, “Himizu,” an adaptation of a popular manga that Sono retrofitted with references to the disaster, the adolescent protagonist is abandoned by his parents. But contrary to the experience of the children in “Care Wave Aid,” the boy in “Himizu” does not enjoy the sympathy of strangers. If anything, his descent into madness is occasioned by violence against his person and psyche, but he somehow comes out the other end with a flicker of hope.

Hope is notably absent from South Korean director Kim Ki Duk’s “Stop,” a clearly provocative movie. A man and his pregnant wife are evacuated from their home near the crippled reactor and re-create the controversy that continues to be argued in Japanese society: The man thinks their unborn child is fine while the woman becomes obsessively convinced that radiation will leave it deformed. The movie is hysterical and satirical, and thus different from Japanese narrative works associated with the disaster, which seem to require a measure of optimism as well as evidence that kizuna will see the victims through. “Stop” may never be shown in Japan.

In a similar vein, when French cartoonist Jean-David Morvan, who happened to be in Tokyo on 3/11, rallied manga artists worldwide to respond to the disaster as a means of supporting the victims, he found that non-Japanese artists were more frank about the associated horrors than Japanese artists were, mirroring the general opinion about the reporting of the incident, which held that foreign media were sensationalist. Some manga artists, like Takehiko Inoue, felt obligated to cheer up his fellow countrymen with a series of drawings showing people smiling, while Ranjo Miyake’s project, “Jishin no baka yaro!” (“Screw you, earthquake!”), was designed to entertain. In an article on Nippon.com, cartoonist Shiriagari Kotobuki said that there is no reason for manga artists to repeat the tasks of scientists, politicians or journalists. Manga is a work of imagination, and in his own drawings about the disaster, Kotobuki imagined a brighter future.

Japanese works that betray a more ambivalent response have been limited to the impressionistic branches of artistic endeavor. Koki Tanaka, a Los Angeles-based conceptual artist who approached the disaster in a purposely abstract manner, told ART iT that Japan tends to avoid “socio-political or … systemic issues” and that it’s not enough to react to 3/11 “with sympathy.” The artists collective Chim Pom felt they couldn’t comment on the meaning of the disaster itself, so they appropriated images related to the reactor failure as a means of commenting on things the mass media were not talking about. The most famous of these involved a guerrilla action that added an image of the Fukushima nuclear plant to a mural by artist Taro Okamoto in Shibuya Station referencing the atomic bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. Well-known art photographer Nobuyoshi Araki scratched the negatives of photos of otherwise unremarkable scenes to “make visible the agonized feelings” of the Japanese people in the wake of the disaster. Yoi Kawakubo buried photographic film in the Fukushima exclusionary zone and the images that resulted from radiation exposure show the limits of conventional photographic representation, which only conveys what the eye can sense.

Music, however, has been used for emotional uplift and direct assistance. NHK created a song, “Flowers Will Bloom,” as an effort to “build public support” for recovery efforts, both spiritually and economically, since all proceeds from sales of the song went to such efforts. Composer Ryuichi Sakamoto actually formed an orchestra of 100 young musicians from the affected area. As such the project had more to do with supporting these musicians than it did with expressing something. Another composer, Toshio Hosokawa, wrote an opera about how a German woman living near the crippled nuclear plant loses her husband and daughter in the tsunami. The opera has only been performed in Germany and in the German language. Producer Michael B., aka Systaime, remixed Kraftwerk’s “Radioactiviy” for a video composed of images associated with the Fukushima nuclear accident, including a televised speech by the Emperor.

So in response to the disaster we have art designed to comfort and edify vs. art designed to provoke. As Edan Corkill wrote in this newspaper at the end of 2011, art can “open our eyes to aspects of life we don’t know” and “evoke feelings we might not be able to explain.” Four years later, artists continue to explore those feelings about the things we’ve lost.

Events, theater mark March 11

Like that fateful day in 2011, today’s anniversary falls on a Friday and many events will mark the time the earthquake struck at 2:46 p.m. with a moment of silence. However, other activities are set to take place in the days following the actual anniversary.

In Tokyo, Peace on Earth (Hibiya Park; March 11 and 12) is set to pair artists and a range of civil society groups for what is said to be the largest commemoration in the capital’s vicinity. In addition to remembering the victims of the earthquake and tsunami that followed, it will also focus on rebuilding efforts, the promotion of alternative energy sources and reducing our reliance on nuclear power.

In the evening, visitors can head to Sion at Okurayama Memorial Hall (Kohoku-ku, Yokohama; March 11 from 7:30 p.m.). The night will feature talks, recitals, dance, and gospel and acoustic performances.

Following the anniversary, the third annual 3.11 Film Festival (3331 Arts Chiyoda, Tokyo; March 11-14) will showcase documentaries and dramatic features about the disaster and its aftermath, as well as a host of other events ranging from an urban camp-out on the roof of 3331 Arts Chiyoda, a workshop featuring mini solar voltaic cells, and a market featuring foods, arts and crafts from the Tohoku region.

On March 12, Play for Children — a Japanese theater NGO that works with children who survived the quake and tsunami — will host “Don’t Forget 3/11” (Shinjuku-ku, Tokyo; from 1 p.m.). It will feature readings of short stories, lectures and discussions centered on children’s issues and the future of Tohoku. In a similar vein, in honor of those affected by the disaster and for International Women’s Day, the Japanese NGO For Empowering Women (FEW) will host a special workshop on how women can boost their disaster preparedness and awareness at the Wesley Center on March 26 (Minato-ku, Tokyo; from 1:30 p.m. to 4:30 p.m.).

The Kiko Symphony Orchestra and Choir will hold charity concerts in May titled “The Suffering of the Innocents” (Fukushima Bunka Center on May 5, 6 p.m. start; and Suntory Hall in Tokyo, on May 7, 6:30 p.m. start). The symphony will be led by acclaimed Czech conductor Thomas Hanus. (Nick Horton, Kaori Kubo)