Japanese Horror Director Tackles the 3/11 Tsunami

The Japanese horror director famous for ‘The Ring’ debuts a powerful documentary about the survivors of the earthquake and tsunami that struck Japan on March 11, 2011.

Hideo Nakata & Twins Japan Inc.

Hideo Nakata, the world famous Japanese horror film director is deathly afraid of one thing: dark waters. Another of his greats fears is that of drowning to death. After the earthquake and tsunami that devastated Japan on March 11th, 2011, he decided to face his fears, grab a camera, and do something new: document real-life horror. His new and controversial film, Living in The Wake of 3/11 finally premieres this Saturday in Japan.

This stark documentary with a minimum of music and fancy visuals captures the horror and tragedy of the 3/11 disaster better than any drama has yet; it is not just a tribute to the deceased but offers catharsis to those still living but beset with “survivor guilt.” It also is sure to create controversy by presenting testimony that contradicts the established belief that all Japanese were well behaved after the disaster struck.

Hideo Nakata is a world-renown Japanese movie director and producer who directed the 1998 film Ringu, which is considered a landmark of Japanese horror cinema, and generated a well-received American remake as The Ring in 2005. Ringu is often cited as the movie that started the so-called “J Horror” boom.

Even before the disaster, Nakata wanted to make a movie on the theme of life, death, disaster, and how the memories of the deceased live on in the hearts of the survivors. His initial idea was to make a story around the Buddhist theme of the four stages of life that cannot be avoided: birth, aging, illness, and death. The story was originally to revolve around Jikisai Minami, a well-respected Zen Buddhist priest in Aomori prefecture.

Nakata in his interviews with The Daily Beast said, “The experiences I had in Tohoku filming the movie and talking with the people, and the priest, let me understand the essence of human tragedy.”

When the stages of life are followed in order: birth, aging, illness, and death—they are bearable. However, in the tragic experiences of the people who appear in the documentary, the natural order of life and death has been reversed. Parents have lost their children; husbands lose their wives, older brothers lose their younger sisters. Nakata was fascinated by the horror of the disaster and frustrated by his inability to do anything about the suffering of those who remained.

“I was reading many stories about people who had lost loved ones in the tsunami disaster zone, in the newspapers,” Nakata explains. “I felt like I should do something to help them. Of course, I knew I can’t help the dead, but I could talk to those who survived and help them exorcise their feelings of guilt and shame.”

Nakata realized that in order to actually go out in the field and meet the survivors and talk to them, he needed guidance in how to best deal with the bereaved. He needed to know how to talk to them in a way that wouldn’t compound the emotional damage they suffered. He turned to the Buddhist priest, Minami-san, for help.

Living in the Wake of 3.11 presents a series of interviews with people talking frankly about the real events that happened to them right after the tsunami hit. Nakata wanted to capture the truth as it was and show the struggles of the survivors. He made the film with a limited budget, as an independent director, and avoided working with major studios or television production companies. He said that if his work had been made in collaboration with major studios, “They would have strongly requested some scenes be removed.” He said that he did try to sell his finished film to a local television station, but they did not approve of the film. In fact, when the movie was completed last year, no one in Japan wanted to show it, he says.

“Japan has been portrayed in the foreign and Japanese media as being an ideal country, where everyone follows the rules of good behavior even in times of strife, and the general impression that was given to the world was that lootings and riots did not occur here.” But in fact, says Nakata, that was not always the case.

“There may have been things much worse than those that are depicted in the film,” Nakata said. “I heard some testimony describing acts that were really inhuman.” He has not put everything into the film, feeling that some stories were best left untold. Nakata notes that while there was not widespread looting, there was some petty theft.

“For example, when gasoline was in short supply, people took the gasoline from the cars that were left abandoned on the road side, which was a natural thing to do at the time.”

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Chiyomi Kanezaki, a former bar worker who appears in the film, said that the biggest shopping mall in her town was the scene of many lootings. Just after the tsunami hit, people rushed up to the second floor, and stole many of the clothes. Kanezaki says frankly, “The police and the firemen were warning them not to take cash, but they let the people take what they needed for their survival, because of the situation … Actually, riots and lootings were very common.”

Nakata says that he encountered many superstitious people, believing that they have been “punished” by the forces of nature. People who believed that “nature had taken revenge against human arrogance.” Nakata said he wanted to show that this tragedy was not a collective tragedy or divine punishment, but that each and every victim or survivor had his or her tale to tell.

The movie presents many speakers who ponder the oddities of fate, such as Kiyoshi Sasaki, a tombstone engraver, in his early fifties. Sasaki says that it felt strange for him to engrave the date of 3.11 again and again on tombstones of people ranging from 1 year old to 90 years old, all who had died on the same day.

“That day, I also ran for my life. The water came up to my knees while I was running. I cannot help wondering if I was left alive just to engrave that date on the stones.”

On one railway line, a train stopped in the middle of a tunnel immediately after the earthquake occurred. Mr. Minoru Yasumiishi, the conductor said that if he had continued further, his train and its passengers would have disappeared; they would have been swallowed up by the tsunami on the other side of the mountain. He said that he was overwhelmed with anxiety inside the tunnel, “Staying two hours inside the tunnel was really more than my nerves could bear.” And at the time, there was no way of knowing what had happened on the other side. In a very Japanese manner, the conductor explains, “This type of situation is not covered in the manual. I had to act on my own and make individual decisions. No one could reach me to give me orders.” All his passengers survived.

Many victims were the physically disabled and elderly people. Some blame the authorities for building nursing homes at sea level—in places where nobody would build their own houses, knowing the dangers of a tsunami existed.

“People in wheelchairs were living in this place, this is unforgivable,” says the father of a young caretaker in the movie. His son died in the tsunami, while helping the disabled people to evacuate to a nearby hillside. The man intends to sue the mayor of the town for building nursing homes there.

“Those who let this happen should be held responsible. My son was brave; he tried to save many lives. However, I cannot help blaming myself for (his death). I kept telling my son, when he became a caregiver, that as their overseer, he had to be the last one to evacuate—whatever happens.”

Yasuhiro Igarashi, a fisherman in the town of Yamada who was formerly a yakuza, lost his wife and his two small children in the tsunami while he was at sea. He said that he wished a scientist would invent a “time machine … one that would take me back one or two minutes before the tsunami.” Before the electricity went out, the radio announced that there would be a three meters high tsunami. He then advised his wife to stay home, while he went to move his boat off shore. But when he came back, his entire house was washed away, and his family was missing.

In some of Nakata’s horror films, water has a very frightening aspect to it. He said that when he was a child, he was indeed fascinated and inspired by the water, and that he often went to places where he could sit and contemplate it. Usually, the theme of stagnating water reflects the “mirror of society” such as in his movie Dark Water, where a young girl who is neglected and drowns in a water tank, later returns as a vengeful water spirit. In Ring, Sadako, the protagonist had died in a well, and returns from the watery grave to haunt the living. Yet, Nakata no longer seems to fear the water as much.

The tsunami, in the documentary, could be seen as water personifying death and destruction, but in fact, the last scene in the movie shows a rather peaceful sea. Japan is an island country and consequently beset with typhoons, flooding rivers, and tsunamis. Water causes many disasters and deaths within Japan. In Ring, water is death personified. However Nakata says, “Through evolution, our ancestors come from the water and the sea. Water is also a source of life, and therefore we initially depend on the bounding of the seas for our livelihood.” Even the fisherman in the film says although the tsunami caused many deaths, it does not mean that he feels a sense of anger toward the sea. Because his livelihood depends on the ocean there is no way for him to carry a grudge towards the sea.

The film captures the tragedy from many different angles but perhaps Kazue Yamazaki, a very old woman in Iwate prefecture, who experienced three tsunamis in her life, best expresses the central theme. “Perhaps, I was born with the fate of surviving tsunamis, ” she muses in the film. She says she would have liked to leave this world before she became a burden to her family, “but I cannot escape my fate.” Her words are the most inspiring in a dark and thoughtful film.

“Though this disaster got us all down, we, the survivors, we cannot just keep crying and crying. Everybody experiences hardship in his or her life. There are many different kinds of sorrow we all have to live through in a life time.”

The Daily Beast spoke with Jikisai Minami, the Buddhist priest who appears in Nakata’s film and helped him meet many of the survivors. Minami believes the film will have some cathartic effects.

Minami has been trying to express to the victims that, “Nobody knows why this tragedy has happened, and it is better not to try to put some cosmic explanation out there for it.” He notes the difficulty for many of the people is that some of them have not seen the dead bodies of their beloved ones, and on some subconscious level, therefore they cannot accept their death. “All they can do is wait until time heals their pain, although they will never be able to forget the tragedy, because they do not even have a fully realized sense of what they have lost.”

Living in the Wake of 3.11 was filmed between July and October of 2011. Hideo Nakata produced the movie in association with Twins Japan Inc., and the composer Kenji Kawai provided the music. A subtitled version may be released in the United States this year.

Editor's Note: An earlier version of this piece incorrectly cited the Buddhist priest in Hideo Nakata’s film as Jisaki Minami-san. His name is Jikisai Minami. Additionally, it wrongly stated that Mr. Yasuhiro Igarashi lost his wife and parents in the tsunami while he was at sea. He lost his wife and his two small children.