Volunteer-led Tohoku cinema provides welcome escapism


Special To The Japan Times

Following the Great East Japan Earthquake of March 11 in the Tohoku region, survivors received nearly every type of aid imaginable from thousands of volunteers, ranging from hot meals to haircuts. But they also faced long, soul-deadening hours in shelters and temporary housing, with little in the way of entertainment or inspiration.

Identifying that need early on and acting to fill it was veteran film publicist and coordinator Eiko Mizuno Gray, who now heads Loaded Films — a company providing subtitling and other services to the film industry. Together with Yuichi Namiki, president of Saitama-based home-theater company Budscene, she launched Niji-iro Cinema, an initiative for bringing films to disaster survivors (and named after the Japanese word for “rainbow”).

“Through working for film festivals since the late 1990s, I realized that film is not just entertainment but a way to learn about other worlds,” comments Mizuno Gray. “In recent years I’ve wanted to provide that opportunity to people with little access to films. I originally planned to hold a charity screening for kids living in the Smokey Mountain garbage dump in the Philippines. But soon after the disaster hit Japan I changed my focus to Tohoku.”

The first screening, on April 14, was held in Minamisanriku, a coastal town in Miyagi Prefecture ravaged by the tsunami. Nearly 70 local residents, from children to seniors, watched “Alvin and the Chipmunks,” “Night Museum” and the first episode of the American TV drama “Glee” on a 52-inch home-theater screen with a Dolby 5.1 surround sound system.

The response was enthusiastic (one man said he had reunited with his mother, missing since the disaster, at the screening), encouraging Mizuno Gray and her team to keep up a steady schedule of screenings at a total of 15 locations in Miyagi, Iwate and Fukushima prefectures. The number of films screened has passed the 100 mark, including “Avatar” and “Knight and Day,” as well as episodes of the popular “Tora-san” and “Tsuribaka Nisshi (Free and Easy)” series and entries in the “One Piece” and “Doraemon” anime series.

Along the way, Niji-iro built a support network that now includes NPOs, volunteer centers and local government offices, as well as such major Hollywood distributors as Universal Pictures, Warner Brothers and 20th Century Fox, and the Japanese film companies Shochiku, Toei, Toho and Asmik Ace.

“Some distributors came on board immediately while others took longer to convince,” says Mizuno Gray’s husband, Jason Gray, a film journalist and subtitler who helped secure films for screenings. “For one thing, the concept of free screenings wasn’t common. Also, there were concerns over how the films would be accepted or whether entertainment should be offered in a time of crisis.”

One who saw the benefits was Toshihiko Fujita, a volunteer leader in Ishinomaki, Miyagi Prefecture, who wrote Gray an emotional letter after attending a screening in July: “When the beautiful images and music from ‘Eragon’ filled the hall, my eyes filled with tears and I couldn’t see the screen. It was a perfect moment, one I (and others who attended the screening) will never forget. I’d like to thank you from the bottom of my heart.”

Mizuno Gray also says her personal experience has been overwhelmingly positive: “The strength, kindness and patience the people of Tohoku have shown us has truly inspired me,” she says. “I know now that films can help people in real ways.”

At the upcoming Tokyo Filmex film festival (Nov. 19-27), Niji-iro will also collect donations to supply food and drinks at the screenings, employing stands staffed by local people. “Hot meals in particular, which many people cannot eat every day, help create a more festive atmosphere,” explains Mizuno Gray.

Niji-iro Cinema will hold screenings in the Tohoku region through the end of the year and beyond. The group also hopes to branch out to orphanages and hospitals. For more information on screenings and opportunities to volunteer and donate, visit www.nijiirocinema.com.