'Stylish' new film tracks the epic voyage across the Pacific

Heyerdahl’s Kon-Tiki adventure still inspires


Special To The Japan Times

In 1947, Norwegian Thor Heyerdahl was a 33-year-old anthropologist and marine biologist who had recently finished a stint fighting in World War II (he served in the Free Norwegian Forces).

Coming out of such a major life experience, he was then able to devote his attention to a personal project that had been 10 years in the making. While working in Polynesia, he became convinced that the Incas of South America had reached islands there long before Asians migrated to them. Backing up his theory were two findings: Drawings of a Polynesian pineapple were discovered inside the ruins of an Inca temple, and the fact that the Incas had the means to build a raft that could sustain an 8,000-km journey across the Pacific Ocean (roughly the distance from Tokyo to Canberra).

Heyerdahl’s theory was bold, and it was rejected by the academic community and subsequently every publisher he approached for funds. Of course, minor things like opposition, lack of support and being called “crazy” to his face dampened Heyerdahl’s enthusiasm. However, he assembled a motley crew of five men (one of whom was a refrigerator salesman), constructed a raft made of balsa wood (the same material the Incas would have used), and set sail from the Peruvian coast. He christened the raft “Kon-Tiki,” after the legendary Inca sun god. Four years later, Heyerdahl turned the expedition into an Oscar-winning documentary and his book recounting Kon-Tiki’s exploits, was translated into 67 languages and sold more than 5 million copies worldwide.

Now, “Kon-Tiki” is once again a movie — considerably more stylish than Heyerdahl’s documentary, but no less sincere regarding his spirit of adventure. Directed by the Norwegian filmmaking team of Joachim Roenning and Espen Sandberg, “Kon-Tiki” redux opens in Tokyo tomorrow.

In a stroke of promotional genius, the movie’s distributors invited Thor Heyerdahl’s son, Thor Jr., 73, for a visit here earlier this month. Himself a marine biologist, whose first expedition with his father, to Easter Island, happened when he was 15, Thor Jr. told The Japan Times that he has very fond memories of his father, though the bulk of his childhood was colored by Heyerdahl’s long absences from home and subsequent divorce.

“To me, my father was a father — and not a world celebrity,” Thor Jr. said. “Of course, I had always known and realized how famous he was, what influence he wielded and all that. At home he was just a father, and like many fathers in the 1940s, he threw himself into work and maybe didn’t help out with the household chores or bringing up children.”

Thor Jr. maintains that his father was a good dad in spite of his commitment to his work and his parents’ divorce just two years after the Kon-Tiki expedition.

“I do have to say that missing him when I was very young was greatly compensated by the fact that we had an extraordinarily good relationship in my teens, which is something that doesn’t happen very often,” Thor Jr. said. “He took me on my first expedition, to Easter Island as a crew member and the thrill of that voyage has always stayed with me.”

Thor Jr. said his choice of career came about as a matter of course — he hadn’t really considered following in his father’s footsteps, but on the other hand, he couldn’t imagine being anything but an adventurer/academic.

“When I finished my education at the University of Southern California as an oceanographer and marine biologist, my father and I became close again, not only in a filial way but as scientific colleagues,” he said. “I think this gave him a lot of joy, and I finally understood how inspiring it was to be the son of Thor Heyerdahl.

“As a teenager, I was still struggling with the handicap of being ‘the great man’s boy,’ and the pressure of having everyone watching for signs of trying to duplicate his actions and his spirit — it wasn’t easy. I deliberately avoided studying archaeology and anthropology because I really wanted to avoid being regarded as a clone. I chose marine biology — which had become a lot more specialized since my father’s day — and I pursued my own career. Once I had my own identity established though, I had no trouble being Heyerdahl’s son. We were on an equal footing, I could hold my own. That’s when I was about 30 years old.”

Heyerdahl turned to his son for advice on maritime matters and they often planned expeditions together. Thor Jr. now directs the Kon-Tiki Museum in Oslo, which exhibits the original raft his father had built along with other primitive seacraft that Heyerdahl used to re-enact voyages made by ancient civilizations. Three generations of Heyerdahl men have set sail on the Pacific using these ships — Heyerdahl, Thor Jr., and his son (who repeated the original Kon-Tiki voyage exactly).

“I always tell young people they should live their own life,” Thor Jr. said. “But often, some things are in your blood, and you can’t get away from it (laughs).”

He adds that the Kon-Tiki journey that put Heyerdahl’s name on the map of celebrity adventurers was an incredibly lucky voyage. “It was blessed,” he says. “Consider this: the whole world was suffering from the aftermath of World War II and everyone was just trying to get by. Certainly that was the case in Europe, and in Norway we weren’t exactly destitute but it was a dark and sad time for the whole nation. Suddenly, people heard about this crazy expedition, and they did a collective, grinning double-take. Could Heyerdahl do it? Could they make it? You know, the sense of adventure then was completely different from what it is today.”

Some think the many “crazy” expeditions in the postwar period (like the polar explorations that were all the rage back then) paved the way for the moon landing in 1969, something Thor Jr. agrees with.

“When I said the sense of adventure was completely different, I meant that the explorers of yesterday really had to put their lives on the line,” he said. “When my father and his crew set sail on Kon-Tiki, there was no way of knowing whether they were going to succeed or fail, no way of predicting whether they will come out alive. They had one radio, but so what? They couldn’t SOS for help in the middle of the Pacific and expect to be rescued in time.”

Thor Jr. added, however, that the Kon-Tiki expedition was ultimately “a pleasure voyage. They landed on a South Sea island with palm trees waving in the breeze, beautiful hula girls dancing on the shore … it was a dream come true. Sure, they had hardships along the way but ultimately, that trip afforded the kind of sheer joy and satisfaction that’s very difficult to savor today. We have become completely spoiled by the digital world and the Internet.”

Thor Jr. brightened up, however, at mention of “Kon-Tiki” the movie receiving attention worldwide, and being nominated for an Academy Award last year.

“To my surprise, the Kon-Tiki expedition still fascinates young people,” he said. “I take it as a sign that people today hunger for the real thing and for true adventure. The dream lives on. That thirst to break free of the shackles of conventions and take off into the unknown — that never grows old.”

However, in a world plagued by an increasing population, terrible marine pollution and climate change, what are the chances the dream will live on for much longer? For the Japanese, it seems especially difficult. The disaster at Fukushima’s No. 1 nuclear plant remains unresolved and there’s still a fear that the other 50-odd nuclear power plants, mostly built along the coastline, will poison our seas forever.

“This is not only a Japanese problem but a global problem,” Thor Jr. said. “You are no worse off than the rest of the globe, on the contrary I would describe the Japanese as being one of the most clear-thinking people. You see the problems. No one has to tell you what to do, because you see the solutions faster than anyone else. When it comes to environmental matters, Japan should take the initiative and show the rest of the world what to do. Even on whaling — well, you guys shouldn’t let Greenpeace boss you around. As one from a fellow whaling country, we have a lot to do when it comes to the ocean, but at least we know that our work is cut out, right there and staring at us.”

“Kon-Tiki” will be screened in cinemas nationwide from June 29. TA review of the film appears on today’s Film Page. For more information, visit www.kontiki.jp.