After the Great East Japan Earthquake and resulting nuclear disaster of March 11, 2011, dozens of documentary filmmakers headed north to the devastated Tohoku region, specifically the hard-hit coastal areas of Fukushima, Miyagi and Iwate prefectures. One filmmaker, however, had already been filming there for years: Miyagi native Kazuki Agatsuma.
Starting as a student at Tohoku Gakuin University in 2005, Agatsuma had traveled regularly to Hadenya, a tiny fishing port in Miyagi Prefecture, to study the O-sususama, a festival held annually on the second Sunday of March. For three years he also shot footage that became the basis for his 2014 documentary “The People Living in Hadenya.”
The tsunami, however, destroyed all but one of the village’s 80 homes and killed 16 residents. New York Times reporter Martin Fackler, visited Hadenya soon after and wrote admiringly about how the villagers “drew uniquely on the tight bonds of their once-tidy village” and “quickly reorganized themselves.”
|Rating||out of 5|
|Run Time||148 mins|
Agatsuma’s latest documentary, “Tremorings of Hope,” subverts the “harmonious Japanese” narrative of the Western media while reporting in depth on the Hadenya community in crisis. He is not a detached, objective observer, however. When he tries to raise funds online to help Hadenya revive the O-sususama, whose centerpiece is a traditional lion dance, he offends some villagers who view his efforts as outsider charity. Turmoil ensues.
From a macro perspective, the film over-dramatizes the politics of holding a small village festival. But Agatsuma, who spent 12 years on this project, also delivers the telling micro moments that capture a mood, tell a story and illuminate a larger problem.
From a plain-speaking woman who is left to manage the family orchard on her own, to a young former fisherman earnestly explaining why he left the village, Agatsuma’s subjects are interesting as individuals.
The film also examines larger local issues such as a long-debated plan to rebuild the village on higher land, and attempts to revive the fishery that was once the core of the local economy.
Among the insights to emerge is that folks in Hatenya may be tough and hard-working, but in early 2012, when much of the film unfolds, many are also stressed and unhappy. Neighbors once close are now scattered, with many living uncomfortably in temporary housing.
Meanwhile, fishermen who once worked for themselves are now forced into uneasy cooperation, harvesting wakame seaweed together and sharing their earnings. “They’ve become like salarymen,” observes the narration. “We fishermen are lone wolves,” says one, with a tight grin.
The festival, we are told, brings people together and helps heal the wounds of the disaster. “It’s been one year, we can’t always be victims,” says a woman. For her and many others the familiar lion dance signals a return to normality. But how to hold it when the tsunami washed everything away? Some villagers propose pooling their funds to buy the needed materials. Others counter that outside financial support is available, lessening the burden on the community.
These and other differences cause strains and threaten eruptions, but they also make “Tremorings of Hope” compelling viewing as the momentous date for the first O-sususama since the disaster nears. In the village, the not-so-peaceful village, will the lion dance tonight?