Carrying a camcorder she borrowed from her professor, Yuka Kanno returned last summer to her tsunami-ravaged hometown of Rikuzentakata, Iwate Prefecture, in an emotional pilgrimage.
The Yamanashi college student is hoping the film she made, which will be shown at colleges across the United States, will help close the "widening gap in perception" from last year's Great East Japan Earthquake and tsunami.
“Even I feel distant from survivors in my hometown when I am in Yamanashi, because everything is normal there and people seem hesitant, and I feel hesitant, to talk about the tragedy,” Kanno said in a recent interview in Tokyo.
“But I always have unresolved feelings, and that goes away when I talk to people in Rikuzentakata, listening to their accounts of the disaster and sharing their grief.”
Living some 450 kilometers from her hometown, Kanno, 21, found it difficult to come to grips with the widening gaps in perception of the March 11 disasters between her classmates and people in her hometown.
With her family, friends and neighbors still living in grief over losing loved ones and their reasons for living, people elsewhere seemed to be gradually forgetting, or at least trying to avoid talking about the disaster, said Kanno, a senior who is studying international communications at Yamanashi Prefectural University in Kofu.
Just as the destruction aroused pain and grief in her, it also gave Kanno a sense of redemption as she was able to discuss her emotions and share her pain with others.
To share her experiences with others, Kanno brought a video camera she borrowed from her professor to Rikuzentakata in July and August to film interviews with her closest friends, other friends’ parents and her mother.
She edited the interviews into a documentary film titled “Kyo o mamoru” (To keep up today). The film has been greeted warmly at cultural and civic events since its completion in November.
It will be shown at several colleges and a high school in the United States from April 13 with English subtitles.
Kanno said that the success of "Kyo o mamoru" owes much to the fact that many people outside Tohoku still have similar unresolved feelings, cares and concerns about the people of the devastated region.
“I don’t think it is that easy for anyone to completely forget about a tragedy of that scale,” Kanno said. “By facing it and individuals who are still suffering, one might feel a sense of integrity and relief, and I will be glad if this documentary can provide a little opportunity for that.”
The film features interviews with three of her high school friends, parents of four other friends and Kanno’s mother. Some of them lost their close family members, and all of them had their homes washed away by the tsunami.
With camcorder in hand, Kanno also visits an empty lot where her home used to stand and ruins of her high school and other sites that hold memories for her.
What distinguishes the amateur film project from TV news reports and documentaries is that Kanno serves as a natural medium between the tsunami victims and the audience.
Nine people interviewed speak about their experiences in the disaster and their sense of loss. But the film maintains the intimate, casual and encouraging feel of chatting with neighbors.
The film is not afraid of breaking taboos of documentary filmmaking--when her friends and neighbors run out of words to explain their feelings, Kanno comfortably supplies her own words.
“They showed to the camera the faces they show to me as friends or friends of their children," she said. "I hope it would help the audience feel close to these people and break down labels they may have of being ‘victims.’ ”
While editing the 10 hours of interviews into a 70-minute documentary, Kanno said she found common sentiments expressed by the nine residents.
As Kanno was also feeling, the nine perceive a widening perception gap, or what they describe as a “temperature difference,” in viewing the tragedy between those who are suffering directly from it and those who are not.
In one of the most poignant moments in the film, one of her friends’ mothers says that her sense of loss at losing her parents and brother is growing as time passes, contrary to her expectation that time would eventually heal the wounds.
And those interviewed express fears if their experiences and ongoing struggles are slipping from the minds of the rest of the public.
“People outside Tohoku may feel hesitant to share the experiences of victims, thinking it is intrusive or just impossible, but it is actually sadder for us if we are forgotten,” Kanno said.
For this reason, she said she felt gratified when Kazumi Hatasa, 55, a professor at Purdue University in West Lafayette, Indiana, contacted her in October about showing her film on U.S. college campuses.
Hatasa said that he realized the world must listen to survivors’ voices when he learned about Kanno’s project through a TV news report. About 60 Japanese majors from colleges across the United States responded to Hatasa’s call for volunteers to help add English subtitles. Her film will be shown at six colleges and a high school.
Kanno, who has been invited to the United States in June to speak to audiences, said she appreciates the offer, as her film is intended for people who are feeling disconnected from the disaster.
“If those people living in truly distant land from Tohoku would start feeling closer even a little, it will be very encouraging to people in Rikuzentakata,” she said. “And believe me, to pretend that you are not connected at all to such a major tragedy would make it more difficult for you to resolve your emotions in the long run.”
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