Virtuoso movie director Nobuhiko Obayashi has created a film that pays homage to Tohoku’s postdisaster recovery in an unusual collaboration with all-girl pop idol group AKB48.

The short feature, lasting around an hour, serves as a promotional video for AKB48’s new single “So long!” that was released Feb. 20. The release date came less than three weeks before the second anniversary of the Great East Japan Earthquake, which wrecked the Tohoku region and triggered the Fukushima nuclear disaster.

The story of the film revolves around a high school friendship between Yume, a girl in Nagaoka, Niigata Prefecture, and Mirai, who temporarily moved to that city from Minamisoma, Fukushima Prefecture, after the nuclear crisis started.

Mirai’s experiences in Nagaoka, which suffered substantial damage from a 2004 earthquake, culminate in her participation in a postearthquake recovery initiative back in Fukushima.

Yume is played by Mayu Watanabe and Mirai by Jurina Matsui. Several other AKB48 members appear in supporting roles, including Yuko Oshima, Haruka Shimazaki, Minami Takahashi and Tomomi Itano.

Comprising dozens of girls in their teens and 20s, AKB48 has reached a massive level of popularity and its members have become a ubiquitous feature of TV variety programs and advertising for an endless array of products.

When first approached by Yasushi Akimoto, a music producer and the mastermind behind AKB48, Obayashi asked why Akimoto had turned to him as a potential partner. “Akimoto said he wanted (me) to film what’s beautiful about human beings,” Obayashi said. “That clinched the deal.”

In the film, Mirai learns how Nagaoka residents struggled to recover from the powerful 2004 quake while harboring appreciation for the support they received from people in other regions.

After returning to Fukushima, Mirai joins a student initiative to draw flowers on broken pieces of school building walls flattened by the March 2011 quake. This is based on a real life project undertaken by students at Hobara High School in Fukushima as a gesture of encouragement for the struggle toward recovery.

Around 500 such “rubble drawing” works have been created since the project started in April 2011, and there is a plan to digitize them so the images can be viewed worldwide. The Hobara students have also launched an activity to cheer up evacuees from danger zones around the wrecked Fukushima No. 1 power plant by drawing flowers on the walls of their temporary shelters.

The short film, which also includes documentary footage of the Hobara students drawing flowers, may be seen as a side story to “Casting Blossoms to the Sky,” a full-length film by Obayashi that hit theaters in 2012. The movie’s story centers on a fireworks festival in Nagaoka held to pay respects to the souls of local residents killed in a World War II air raid and the 2004 earthquake.

Obayashi recognizes Japanese virtues in disaster-stricken residents’ approach to recovery in both Fukushima and Nagaoka.

“The traditional virtues of Japanese people — patience, feelings of appreciation, consideration for other people and courage to look forward to the future without despair — should not be allowed to decay,” he said.

Obayashi praised AKB48 members for their professionalism and dedication to acting, as well as for their commitment to activities in disaster-hit Tohoku.

“They are not spoiled idols — each of them expresses herself in her own way and steps forward on her own,” he said.

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