In the wake of the Great East Japan Earthquake of 2011, many filmmakers spoke of how deeply the disaster had affected them, but few have tried to confront it head-on. Some of the most successful efforts to date have been documentaries, one of which inspired this quietly devastating drama.

“Voices in the Wind” is based on a real-life pilgrimage spot: a telephone booth in Otsuchi, Iwate Prefecture, known as the “wind phone,” where mourners go to have conversations with people they’ve lost.

It’s easy to imagine this providing the basis for a mawkish tearjerker, along the lines of the 2018 film adaptation of Toshikazu Kawaguchi’s novel “Before the Coffee Gets Cold.” Instead, director Nobuhiro Suwa takes a more experimental approach, and withholds the story’s main hook until so late in the day, it’s practically a coda.

Voices in the Wind (Kaze no Denwa)
Run Time 139 mins.
Opens JAN. 24

In title cards that set the solemn mood, we are introduced to high school student Haru (Serena Motola), a former resident of Otsuchi who lost her family in the tsunami at the age of 9 and has been living with her aunt Hiroko (Makiko Watanabe) ever since. When the latter collapses and is hospitalized, Haru starts hitchhiking back to her old home, as if compelled by the weight of her sorrow.

Many of the people she encounters during the ensuing road trip have endured tribulations of their own, and not only in connection with the 2011 disaster. An elderly woman, her mind fogged by dementia, recalls the atomic bombing of Hiroshima. Later, Haru meets a family of Kurdish refugees, one of whom volunteered for clean-up efforts after the tsunami, but has since been detained by immigration authorities.

For much of the journey, she is accompanied by another survivor, Morio (Hidetoshi Nishijima), a former nuclear worker from Fukushima now living out of his car. He, too, is haunted by loss, the extent of which only becomes clear when they return to his shuttered house and find the remnants of a once-happy domestic life, frozen in time.

As much as family and bereavement, the film is concerned with the idea of home: These characters aren’t just mourning the people they’ve lost but the places, too. One of Morio’s friends, Imada (Toshiyuki Nishida), recalls the discrimination faced by residents evacuated from the exclusion zone around the Fukushima No. 1 nuclear plant, and observes that only the older folks have come back.

Suwa takes a documentarian approach, letting scenes sprawl across extended takes, with much of the dialogue improvised. In the most emotive scenes, he seems to take a step back, refusing to bend to sentimentality, and Hiroko Sebu’s haunting soundtrack is used sparingly.

Motola, better known as a fashion model, holds her own in the company of screen veterans like Nishida and Nishijima. It’s a very unaffected performance, and when she has to dig deep, she responds with outpourings of emotion so raw, they’re almost painful to watch.

“Voices in the Wind” asks what it means to survive: to experience terrible loss and yet carry on. When Haru finally arrives at the phone booth, it’s not the big, cathartic moment that the film seemed to be leading toward but something smaller and more personal, even banal. After speaking to so much of human experience, “Voices in the Wind” returns to focus squarely on its heroine, and allows her, at least, to find some closure.

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