Six years have passed since the Great East Japan Earthquake and subsequent tsunami devastated the Tohoku region, leaving more than 18,000 people dead or missing, and triggering meltdowns at the Fukushima No. 1 power plant that has left a deeply embedded mistrust of nuclear power in the Japanese consciousness.
Fukushima has been the subject of many documentaries and movies since 3/11, with “La Terre Abandonnee” (“Nokosareshi Daichi”) being the latest to join the batch. Written and directed by Belgium’s Gilles Laurent, “La Terre Abandonnee” looks specifically at Tomioka, a village in Fukushima Prefecture that was evacuated because of high radiation levels. Abandoned by its residents, with few returning, it is now populated by just a handful of people, mostly those who feel a sense of loyalty to their ancestral homes and feel that it’s too late to make a fresh start elsewhere. One man even opted to stay in order to look after the animals everyone else left behind — including livestock and, intriguingly, an ostrich.
Laurent’s focus on these people isn’t simply charged with sympathy, he’s genuinely moved and inspired by their selflessness, resilience and acceptance of fate.
“The mayor doesn’t come out and say so, but my guess is that Tomioka itself is going to disappear soon,” a woman in her 70s tells the camera crew. “People can’t come back here, there are no jobs. And young people with children, well they’re scared of the radiation levels.”
Although she admits there is nothing to come back to, the woman and her husband have chosen to remain and they still laugh and smile at the camera as if nothing bad had ever happened to their hometown.
“La Terre Abandonnee” opened on March 11, the sixth anniversary of the Tohoku earthquake, but the director wasn’t there to see the premiere of his first feature film. Gilles Laurent was a victim of another kind of disaster. The airport and subway terrorist attacks that took place in Brussels last year claimed his life and it was left to his wife, Reiko Udo, in her own grief, to see the project through to completion.
“It was the least I could do, at the time,” Udo says in an interview before the film was released. “I had never worked in film before and I really had no idea what to do. But I needed to get this documentary out in the world. Not just for Gilles, but everyone involved in the making of the film. The message needed to be heard.”
It was Udo who decided on the Japanese title: “Nokosareshi Daichi,” which can be translated as “the land that remains.”
“I know it has a different nuance from Gilles’ original French title, but this is a Japanese story and I didn’t want it to sound negative, as if people had just deserted the land and never went back, or that no one cared anymore,” she explains. “No one in Tomioka or anywhere else in Fukushima left because they wanted to. I wanted to stress that very often, abandonment happens for reasons that are beyond our control.
“For example, when Gilles died I felt like our little family had been abandoned but he certainly didn’t choose to have that happen.”
Laurent had been on his way to work near Maelbeek, the metro station where one of the bombs exploded.
“He was in the final stages of post-production. And he hated to leave a project unfinished,” Udo says.
Before her marriage to Laurent, Udo worked for a fashion magazine and describes herself as “a very visual person, trained for visual work.” Her husband on the other hand, had been a sound engineer. “He had worked on film sets for most of his adult life and so many directors liked and depended on him,” she says. “He was an ace sound editor as well. He had an instinct for the things that benefitted the movie, or the mood of a certain scene, and could record sound to fit those circumstances. For Gilles, sound was the ultimate tool, he could use it to express key elements in the story.”
When asked how the two had met, she lights up. “People just assume we met when I was traveling in Europe but actually, it was on SNS. We got to chatting, and then he decided to come to Tokyo so we could meet in person. He just said, ‘I’m coming over!’ and I replied, ‘OK, I’ll show you around! Things went on really quickly from there. We were both 39 years old and serious about finding a partner.”
That was eight years ago. The couple had two daughters and then moved from Brussels to Tokyo, where Laurent studied Japanese and decided to make a documentary about Fukushima.
When talking about Laurent, Udo speaks of his diligence about absorbing Japanese culture, especially film and literature. “He knew more about these things than I did,” she recalls. “He loved ‘Tokyo Story.’ I had seen it briefly on TV and didn’t know it at all. … But he taught me how to watch it, what to look for — and for the first time, I understood that it was a masterpiece.”
As the interview draws to a close, Udo says: “I know now that it’s not how long you live that matters, but the density and depth of the life you lead. I feel like he must be happy now, in heaven, because he wasn’t the type of person to just live. He would have chosen relevance over longevity. The documentary is a testament to that relevance. His life, his death, the movie — it’s all so like him.”
“La Terre Abandonnee” is now showing at selected cinemas nationwide.