‘Pray for Japan’ Director Inspired by Tsunami Survivors

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Members of the “Pray for Japan” crew at the Torrance screening: (from left) Susumu Kimura (editor), Emiko “Panchita” Kagawa (editor), Noriko Miyakawa (editor), Ben Chan (post sound mixer), Stu Levy (director/producer), Shinya Mizoguchi (composer), Daisuke Kinouchi (editor), Yukari Kaneko (graphics). Not pictured: Michelle Klein-Hass (assistant editor), who was shooting video of the event. (Photo by J.K. Yamamoto/Rafu Shimpo)

by J.K. YAMAMOTO, Rafu Staff Writer

Benefit screenings of the documentary “Pray for Japan” were held March 14 at AMC theaters across the country, including multiplexes in Torrance, Orange and San Diego.

Stu Levy’s feature-length film, which focuses on survivors of the March 11, 2011 tsunami in northeastern Japan, was seen from Maui to Washington, D.C. as well as Canada and the U.K. Proceeds are going to nonprofit organizations doing relief work.

The film is playing until March 29 at the AMC Burbank Town Center 8, 201 E. Magnolia Blvd., Burbank, (818) 563-4901, www.amctheatres.com/Burbank8/.

Those who attended the sold-out screening at the AMC Del Amo 16 had the opportunity to hear from the director.

Levy, founder of the media company Tokyopop, is credited with helping to introduce manga to the English-speaking world and is familiar with Japanese language and culture as well as movie production. He went to the Tohoku area just days after the disaster and put the documentary together with an all-volunteer crew.

Originally, Levy went to Ishinomaki, Miyagi Prefecture, with JEN (Japanese Emergency NGO) as a volunteer. “I wasn’t thinking about making a movie or anything,” he said. “I was just doing what I can, brought gasoline and rice and things like that.”

He met Manabu Endo, a volunteer leader who appears in the film with his pet rabbit, Cocoa-chan, who was used as a therapy animal for the survivors. “He was the guy that said, ‘Will you make a documentary?’ … He’s an Ishinomaki guy and a real nice guy. When I started to actually film it, I didn’t know where to start, so I started with him,” Levy said.

The interview took place in the only restaurant/bar that was open in the entire city. “We went there and talked for like four hours. I took tons of notes. I got some tips on who to talk to next, and I started talking to those people.”

Dual Roles

Levy recalled alternating between being a volunteer and a filmmaker. “The people in front of you … they haven’t eaten for a while and they’re in these shelters … You give them their first hot meal, and when you do that and they say ‘thank you’ … it just makes you feel like ‘Wow, this is what’s life’s all about’ … fulfillment inside your heart.

Floating lanterns honor the memory of the tsunami victims in a scene from "Pray for Japan."

“That is different when you start shooting. When you’re filming people doing that and you’re with a camera, you suddenly aren’t really helping anymore, you don’t really have that fulfillment anymore, so it can be very frustrating watching all these people really working hard to clean up this incredible mud and to feed people and to move provisions into places … That was what made it very hard for me.”

He ended up filming for a while, putting down the camera and helping the volunteers, then picking up the camera again. “While I did that, I think … I started to really earn their trust, like we were in it together. We were a team. So even though I was filming and they knew I was doing that for the long run, I also didn’t rest ever. I made sure I was with them the whole time ….We would get to know each other and I would get to understand them …

“Afterwards I had an incredible group of people, and these are just the ones that made it into the film. I have amazing people that didn’t get into the film because I only had 90 minutes. One day I’d like to put it all on the Internet.”

The interviewees included Junichi Sato, principal of Ogatsu Middle School, who has been working to rebuild the school and bring the students and teachers back together, and Yoshiaki Shoji, an Ishinomaki city councilman who took charge of a shelter at an elementary school. Volunteers, including some from other countries, were also interviewed.

“The most important thing that I learned from being up there and meeting these people is that life means something,” Levy reflected. “And all of us being here together and all of us being alive and being able to appreciate the people we love around us in our lives, that’s the thing that these people taught me … They had so much that they had lost, and instead of thinking about that … they put all of that aside and they went so incredibly out of their way for other people.”

Putting Things in Perspective

At the time, Tokyopop was shutting down because Borders, which owed his company almost $1 million, had declared bankruptcy. The disaster has helped put that in perspective. “I’ve had many times in the past year when I thought my life is just miserable, there’s so many problems, so many challenges. How do I deal with it all? And then I remember them … If they can do that, if they can survive, if they can fight and if they can put themselves aside, what am I complaining about?”

Levy did not have to worry about finances for the film, as all services were donated. “From Suzuki Kyoka … she’s a famous actress, from her doing her voice, to Okuda Tamio … he’s a very huge musician, he wrote and performed that (theme) song for us for free, to all these amazing, talented people here to the post-production house in Japan … They were in there color-grading for one week nonstop from morning to night … So we were able to make this film because of people’s heart.”

The director visited Ishinomaki the week before the screening, for the first time in about six months. “The debris is gone, so from a visual point of view you go down the streets, a lot of stores are open, and that’s incredible,” he said. “But when you start to dig deep, you see there’s a lot of leftover damage.

“For instance, the victims have gone from the shelters … They’re all in temporary housing. And temporary housing is not even real homes, they’re basically paper thin … The problem is it’s not their home, so emotionally they don’t have the feeling of being home, but they’ve lost at the same time the community of being together at the shelter because now they’re in different units, they’ve been broken up.”

He was particularly concerned about the elderly, who are more sensitive to cold weather, can easily get depressed, and may suffer from inadequate nutrition. “To avoid this kind of thing, a lot of people on the ground, organizations like JEN … are building little community centers and trying to have ways … to bring people together, to let them know that there’s still a lot of care and affection for each other.”

In the film, 18-year-old Kento Itoh, a high school student who lost his grandparents, mother and baby brother, considers ending his own life, but the discovery of a koinobori (carp banner) in the debris inspires him to honor his 5-year-old brother and other lost loved ones in a koinobori ceremony with taiko drumming.

Levy said that post-traumatic stress and other psychological problems still need to be addressed a year later. He learned that Kento had recently become “very depressed … It’s just dawning on him now how much he’s lost. When you’re working on something like he did, finding a project like the koinobori … he has a purpose, he has a focus. But when that goes away and then he’s dealing with his life and realizes what’s around him, it’s very easy to slip into depression.”

Kento was involved in another koinobori project marking the one-year anniversary of the tsunami, Levy said, but keeping him motivated is an ongoing challenge.

There are economic challenges as well, Levy noted. “They’ve lost fishing, farming. These industries were major industries for these people … The tsunami debris, it’s toxic, it’s destroyed all of the fish. There’s nothing that can be fished … All of the shellfish was destroyed. It takes at least three years to have oysters come to the point where they can sell them again. They’re starting with wakame, which is seaweed, because it can grow fast, but … it will be a few years to be able to harvest.”

Levy did not address issues like the Fukushima nuclear plant crisis, preferring to focus on what he learned from the survivors. “They have the vibrancy, they have the desire to not only survive for themselves but for the people around them. So to me I think it’s about compassion. I think that’s the key to survival.”

Since there is no distribution company involved, the film is going international on a grassroots basis. Levy said he had heard from groups in Singapore and Germany that were interested, and he was scheduled to go to a screening in Hong Kong. “The traditional route of distribution doesn’t work, so coming up with a different route is really key, getting it to people who want to see it,” he said.

In addition, there is a hosted screening program that will allow the film to be shown at schools, churches, community centers and other venues. For more information, visit www.prayforjapan-film.org.

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