NEW YORK – While Taylor Anderson’s life was cut short on March 11, 2011, along with thousands of others caught in the massive tsunami triggered by an earthquake off the coast of Tohoku, the full life she led was a source of inspiration for an American documentarian who chronicled her life.
“It’s a short time, but if you use it, it’s meaningful,” Regge Life, the director of “Live Your Dream: The Taylor Anderson Story,” said in a recent interview at the Japan Society in New York.
“It’s not the time, it’s what you do with the time,” he added, noting that the brief stint the Virginia native spent in Japan positively impacted others.
The 24-year-old English teacher initially attracted Life’s attention as he read news from Japan. Learning of the young American missing in the hard-hit city of Ishinomaki in Miyagi Prefecture, he became interested in her story.
Her body was discovered more than a week after she was last seen cycling away from Mangokuura Elementary School. She had helped care for 80 students after the 9-magnitude quake.
Cataloging and processing reports, he learned about her enthusiasm for life, which rubbed off on students, fellow teachers and other participants in the Japan Exchange and Teaching Program, known as JET.
“It was clear that Taylor had touched a lot of people,” he explained, adding that her connection with the residents — from senior citizens to shopkeepers — piqued his interest.
“It was more than just being a JET,” he explained, noting how she reached out beyond classrooms.
Anderson used the grass-roots program, which brings participants from around the globe to work in schools and offices throughout the country, to fulfill her life-long dream of living in Japan after studying Japanese in elementary school.
Having spent time making films focused on subjects who live multicultural lives, Life connected with the way she interacted with her community.
“My work is about bridges, it’s about crossing cultures, my work is about what draws us together, not pushes us apart,” he explained. “And I saw in Taylor someone on that mission.”
Life reached out to her father, Andy, and later met with him. That encounter, on the day after Thanksgiving, led to a collaboration that continues as the film receives more play, including at Columbia University on Oct. 30.
The U.S. premiere took place last fall at the young woman’s high school, and the Japanese premiere this March coincided with the second anniversary of the quake and tsunami.
“When you look back on what Taylor did, you can see that the way she acted toward them really had an effect,” her father said. “So I hope it helps people think about that with themselves and their relationships with others.
“It’s about living your dream, but also about how you live your dream,” Anderson’s father said of the film’s message. “You figure out what you want to do and pursue it, but then along the way, how do you interact with other people, how do you affect other people?”
The younger Anderson’s friends, like Wesley Julian, told Life how inspirational it was that her family “used her death as an opportunity to extend her life.”
In her memory a fund was created that continues to assist Ishinomaki’s students, schools and families as they recover from the devastation and carry on with their lives.
After conducting interviews across the United States, as well as three times in Japan, the documentarian structured the film into 10 chapters.
Noteworthy snippets from friends and students described how they remembered the teacher befriending people while immersing herself in the culture she loved.
“Taylor was a model JET teacher in my opinion, she went to all the graduations, all the festivals, she would see her students out and about, give them hugs and would kind of be that bubbly, really gregarious person that everyone makes her out to be,” Steve Corbett, a friend and peer, recalled in the film.
There were other instances when she went the extra mile, including on March 10, as students practiced for their graduation.
During down time that day she made 50 cards for each of them with personalized messages.
Also interviewed was a former student, Nao Takahashi, who recalled Anderson’s attitude.
“We could see her enthusiasm for learning Japanese culture and the Japanese language that made us feel friendly toward her and we became friends,” Takahashi explained in the film. “I think Taylor’s love for Japan and desire to teach English was stronger than the other ALTs (assistant language teachers).”
For some former JET participants, the movie brought back frightening memories of living through a communication blackout after the disaster struck. Unable to contact family and friends, many were traumatized by the aftershocks.
Only later did they learn that the deadly tsunami took Anderson and another JET peer, Monty Dickson, who lived in Rikuzentakata, Iwate Prefecture — which was largely wiped off the map. Seeing the film also reinforced the bonds they forged as foreign teachers living in close proximity.
“Anytime you meet someone who is a JET you feel connected with them,” said Anne Smith, who taught in nearby Akita Prefecture between 2008 and 2012. “I felt like she was me and we were very similar.”
While the movie mostly centered on the young woman, Life also interviewed several survivors who shed light on contributions the popular Dickson, an Alaskan, made in his community.
The filmmaker, who worked with JETs over the past two decades on a variety of subjects, including interracial children and the African-American experience in Japan, aimed to highlight the influential roles that Anderson and Dickson played during their brief stays in their respective cities.