Sunday, March 11, 2012

Pray for Japan: Hope and Healing One Year Later

The numbers are staggering: 319,000 individuals evacuated, at least 269,000 buildings destroyed, roughly $325 billion in damages, and over 20,000 souls missing or confirmed dead. It happened today, exactly one year ago, when the Tōhoku coast of Japan was devastated by a cruel earthquake and tsunami tandem. Yet, the enormity of the tragedy was matched by the resiliency of the average Japanese citizenry. Tokyopop founder Stu Levy pays tribute to the heroes and victims of the 3/11 disaster throughout his documentary Pray for Japan (trailer here), which screens today in New York as part of the Japan Society’s anniversary programming, in advance of a special national screening this Wednesday at participating AMC Theaters, followed by a weeklong New York theatrical run starting this Friday.

Last year, 3/11 was a Friday. It happened to be the Ogatsu Middle School’s graduation day. As a result, their students had already gone home when the 2:46 earthquake hit. As they made their way to shelters, the Ogatsu faculty reconstructed their class rosters from scratch and set about verifying their students’ safety over the following hours and days. Miraculously, none had been killed. However, little else remained of their school.

In alternating segments, Levy focuses Pray on four groups dealing with the quake-tsunami’s impact: school, family, shelter, and volunteers. Each features inspirational and heartbreaking stories, but the rebirth of Ogatsu Middle School is truly emblematic of the courageous rebuilding process. What viewers do not hear is any finger pointing or complaining. However, the grief remains raw and painful. Even the most jaded viewer will be deeply moved by one teenager’s koi-nobori tribute to his little brother on children’s day.

Indeed, Pray is a film that will make you cry repeatedly. Anyone of good will would be deeply moved by the stories Levy documents. To his credit, he has the good sense to stay out of the picture himself, letting the survivors tell their stories directly. Yet, the evocative animated title sequence and Okuda Tamio’s theme song “jp” greatly contribute towards setting the elegiac but empowering tone right up front.

Though undeniably harrowing for many, compared to 3/11, Katrina was a mild spot of flash flooding. Yet, the breadth and severity of the Japanese disaster seem lost on our media and elected leaders, who appear more interested in obsessing over the words of a radio talk show host they disagree with, than marking our close friend and ally’s solemn anniversary. That shows us all we need to know about them.

In contrast, Levy and a handful of filmmakers, like Lucy Walker (whose Oscar nominated The Tsunami and the Cherry Blossom also screens today at the Japan Society), recognized an important human story, which continues to develop. Unfortunately, the Japanese people’s fundamental decency and modesty works against them when it comes to grabbing the global media’s attention, yet seeing that spirit manifest itself in acts of compassion and volunteerism is not just inspiring, but ennobling. Both films capture that impulse, making them important and stirring works of cinematic reportage.

Highly recommended, Pray for Japan screens today (3/11) at the Japan Society and Wednesday (3/14) at select AMC Theaters nationwide, including the AMC Empire in New York and the AMC Cupertino in San Francisco, with a further weeklong theatrical engagement set for the Empire and the Burbank Town Center, starting this Friday (3/16).

Immediately following the events of 3/11, the Japan Society took the lead spearheading relief efforts in New York. You can learn how to support their laudable efforts here.