Editor's note: Over the next few weeks, we at IDA will be introducing our community to the films that have been honored by the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences with an Oscar® nomination in the documentary category. You can see The Tsunami and the Cherry Blossom at DocuDay LA on Saturday, February 25 at the Writers Guild of America Theater, with filmmakers Kira Carstensen and Lucy Walker in person.
Synopsis: Survivors in the areas hardest hit by Japan's recent tsunami find the courage to revive and rebuild as cherry blossom season begins.
A stunning visual poem about the ephemeral nature of life and the healing power of Japan's most beloved flower.
International Documentary Association: How long after the disaster occurred were you able to get over to Japan? Did you start filming as soon as you got there?
Lucy Walker: I think it was about 10 days. We started out in Tokyo, Kyoto and Hiroshima because immediately it wasn’t actually possible to even get [to the disaster zone]. There were no cars to rent or places to stay—you can imagine, with all those displaced people and smashed-up cars. With the contamination fear in Tokyo, stores had sold out of bottled water. [There were] rolling blackouts because of the power situation. There were no trains to the North; many of the subways weren’t working. No escalators in Tokyo were working to save power, so [it was] a very strange and eerie situation.
Everyone I spoke to when we started filming kept saying that they were thinking about the people in the Tōhoku region, and they wanted to know what they were going through. Eventually, enough people say that and you realize that’s what you’re thinking, too. You say, "Well really, that’s where the film is. We should probably go there."
IDA: When you eventually got to Tōhoku, the men and women you spoke with seem very comfortable opening up to you about their losses and their pain. How did you get access to speak to members of the community and have them respond so candidly?
LW: Just by being very friendly. I had kind of an open mind about it. I think it made people happier that the world hadn’t forgotten them. Foreigners had all fled the country and there weren’t journalists around. It was a very eerie, empty landscape. It was very big, and the rescue teams were very sparse.
The empty landscape that you see in the film with just a couple of people kind of picking their way across it was what the reality was like. So if you saw another human being in that landscape, and that human being was somebody who just wanted to see how you were doing and ask you to tell your story...It turned out that people were just very happy to talk and share.
I think that most people were very touched by encouragement and support and solidarity shown by other nations in Japan’s desperate hour of need. It’s even tough to recollect now, a year later, what a triple whammy this disaster was with the earthquake, the tsunami, and the nuclear disaster all rolled into one. They were hit very, very hard. You actually wish there were more of you. We’re making a very small contribution with our presence, but our presence felt like a gift of support, encouragement, interest and caring. I was very glad for that.
IDA: Kira, were you over in Japan with Lucy while she was shooting?
Kira Carstensen: No, I was organizing things from stateside. Lucy only went over there with one DP (Aaron Phillips), and we picked up an interpreter—an American man living in Tokyo—to interpret for Lucy and Aaron. It was a very small crew, and that was strategic on Lucy’s part for a number of reasons. Firstly, there were dangerous stories coming out of Japan regarding contamination and other kinds of exposure. Lucy felt very responsible to not put her crew in danger any more than she needed to. Also, I think you tend to be less threatening when there’s a smaller amount of people, [especially for] people who are unaccustomed to being on television. It allowed them to get into areas that they wouldn’t have been able to get into had there been a lot more of them.
IDA: What inspired you to make this film in the first place?
KC: Prior to the disaster, Lucy and I were talking about using an upcoming promotional trip that she had to Japan with regard to her previous film Countdown to Zero. We thought while she was over there she would make a short, visual poem about cherry blossoms. I’ve always been obsessed with cherry blossoms as much as Lucy, and we talked about that we had that in common and thought it would be beautiful [to] make a short, little visual haiku. And of course a few days before her scheduled departure, the earthquake and tsunami hit.
It was sort of a question of—What do we do now? Do we go? And we realized it was more important now than ever. It was the classic documentary story, I guess: Lucy as a photojournalist reacting to real-world events and changing up the plan. We ended up having to get a fresh crew, and we didn’t have the support from Japan that we thought we were going to have for the little film because obviously, Japan was in crisis.
And you know, as desolate and as much destruction as you see in the film, it was so much worse in person than I think even shows on film. Aaron and James MacWhyte, who was the interpreter that we picked up in Tokyo, both of them have been forever changed by that experience for sure.
IDA: It’s interesting that the initial idea was to make a film about cherry blossoms because it seems it would be the other way around—that you went over to do this work about the disaster, and then ended up pulling in the cherry blossom as a metaphor for the resilience of the Japanese people.
LW: It was really organic. Documentary filmmaking is sort of art because you are constantly evolving how you’re working based on what you’re finding. Originally I wanted to make a small film about cherry blossoms. Then [after the disaster] we went there and realized the story was actually in that disaster area. And in the disaster area when you ask people how they’re doing, they’ll naturally start telling you about the cherry blossoms, because you couldn’t miss it. In that landscape, when you’ve got these beautiful buds poking through that debris, you can smell dead bodies and you can see the markings on the house and the cars and the boats where the dead bodies had been found—such a dreadful landscape to see these flowers poking up and starting to bloom. It was just so remarkable.
That symbol is so incredibly strong in the Japanese culture. Japanese people are genuinely obsessed with [cherry blossoms] and it came a month after the disaster, right when people were picking themselves back up and realizing that nobody was really going to help them. Everybody had to move forward in life and figure out what they had to do for themselves.
As somebody says at the end of the movie, "One day people get up and say ‘I can do this. I can carry on.'" That’s in a nutshell what the whole movie is—people deciding that they can carry on after what’s happened. These are the moments in life when we need the most deep wisdom and understanding and strength to pull on, because how on earth can you get through moments in history or in your life like this one? You need the best forces of strength and power and encouragement available in a moment like that.
IDA: Lucy, why do you think you have such a strong connection with cherry blossoms?
LW: I had been taking care of my mother when she had been dying. She looked out of the window and said "these are the last cherry blossoms I’m going to see." Then she said that when she had been taking care of her mother, my grandmother looked out of the window and said “I’m not going to see any cherry blossoms anymore.”
My mom said "Oh, don’t worry. You’re going to get better, I’m sure you will." My mother had always been haunted by this response of denial, that she hadn’t been able to accept that her mother was dying and therefore couldn’t share an honest moment with her mother. She told me this, and then she and I had an honest moment about the fact that she was dying quite soon.
I was in Washington DC and I saw these cherry blossoms and it kind of snapped me into the present. And for me, I’d measured my own grief against these cherry blossoms. They had this very powerful effect on me and snapped me back into the present in a very healing way.
I realized that in Japan they had the same obsessions with these blossoms. And that’s why I wanted to go hanami ("flower viewing") parties in Tokyo. When people start talking to you and they naturally start talking about cherry blossoms, everyone had stories like that.
IDA: Kira, do you have a personal story about your connection to this tree or the process it goes through or to what it symbolizes?
KC: When I was very young I took my first field trip to Washington DC with my father and my mother, and it happened to be when the cherry blossoms were in bloom. I thought they were just so gorgeous, and they were falling. It’s so gorgeous when they fall. When they die, it’s beautiful. It’s the thing that I associate with that trip. I don’t remember so much of the monuments and the other things that I saw, but I do remember that.
What I love more than anything was their symbolism in the Japanese culture and that they were so revered and respected. They do symbolize life and the fragility of life and the transient nature of life. That just always struck me; I just think they’re the most beautiful flower. So when Lucy called me and asked what I thought of cherry blossoms, I said "I love cherry blossoms. Why are you asking?" We discussed it and she said "I’m thinking about making a short film." At that time we thought we were going to make like a four or five minute film that was just something beautiful. And then of course, on March 11, prior to departure, the other events unfolded.
IDA: How have audiences reacted as you have screened this film? What do you find the most surprising about their response?
LW: We’ve been really overjoyed. I’ve made short films before, and I never know what to expect. I think that people have really gotten a lot out of it. I’m obviously overjoyed by the Academy and the Sundance recognition. It was a very personal project.
The Japanese audiences reactions have been amazing. The emails we’re getting—you can’t believe how moving they are and how happy and grateful they are. Really profound responses. The film was made from my Westerner’s eyes. We had a wonderful Japanese editor who contributed as much as anyone to the film. I take ownership of the fact that I’m absolutely not Japanese. I’m an outsider, so I didn’t know what Japanese people would make of the film.
KC: I've seen the movie a hundred times or more. I love screening it with new audiences because there's a common reaction like from Toronto and Sundance to San Diego for Cinema Society—completely different groups at different places. There’s always a huge audible gasp at the opening footage of the tsunami devastating this town. And then there's tears in the audience. I feel myself experiencing those emotions no matter how many times I see the film over and over again. I do leave the film feeling hopefully at the end. I believe the audiences do, too. It’s a powerful moviegoing experience for a lot of people who watch the film. It is for me every time.
The Tsunami and the Cherry Blossom is screening at DocuDay LA at the Writers Guild of America Theater and at DocuDay NY at the Paley Center for Media as part of IDA's program of 2012 Oscar®-nominated films.