By MIKEY HIRANO CULROSS
Rafu Arts & Entertainment
When actress Megumi Kabe was gathering research for her role in “The Wind Phone,” an avalanche of emotion came from an entirely unexpected source.
A Japanese TV commercial, based on the 2011 earthquake and tsunami that devastated large swaths of Japan’s northeastern coast, posed questions that have likely been irrevocably etched into the minds of the survivors.
“The commercial made people think about their loved ones who died, and was asking, ‘If I knew that was going to happen, if I knew you weren’t coming home, would I kiss you one more time?’ Those emotions were so real, so raw,” Kabe remembered. “That’s when I stopped my research.”
Kabe is part of the ensemble cast of the film, screening this Sunday as part of the 2019 Japan Film Festival Los Angeles. The 16-minute work is scheduled to show as part of a short film collection, beginning at 4:55 p.m. at the Japanese American National Museum in Little Tokyo.
The festival begins Saturday, with free events in the morning at the Little Tokyo Branch Library, and will showcase films rarely screened in the U.S. Screenings will take place at JANM and at the Newport Beach Higashi Honganji.
“The Wind Phone” was inspired by a true and inspiring act of compassion in Japan. Perhaps as a way to help absorb his own personal loss, a gardener in Otsuchi, Iwate Prefecture erected a lone phone booth in his yard on a seaside bluff, containing a phone not connected to any network. But this line reached directly to the feelings of anyone who wished to use it, to say the things they neglected to utter before their loved ones were taken away in an instant.
By August 2017, more than 25,000 people had used the phone, in a village that lost more than ten percent of its population in a matter of minutes. Nearly 16,000 people perished in the prefectures of Iwate, Miyagi and Fukushima, with more than 2,500 still unaccounted for.
Director Kristen Gerweck had recently suffered the loss of her grandmother, after repeatedly neglecting to visit or call on a more regular basis. After her grandmother’s passing, she was already feeling regret when she came upon a news story about the “wind phone” in Japan.
“The visitors of the wind phone had found a bridge to talk to those on the other side,” Gerweck said in a January interview with We Are Moving Stories. “I was intrigued by the emotional realities that could emerge in this metaphysical grieving space and so began my journey to translate this beautiful story to screen.”
Her film, shot not in Tohoku, but in Palos Verdes with a cast of local actors, in presented in Japanese with English subtitles. It is a concise look at how individuals, connected only by an unthinkable tragedy, seek solace and comfort, inside an enclosed, solitary space.
“I have not yet experienced losing a close family member, so I had to try to imagine how it felt,” said Hitoshi Masaki, one of the actors in “The Wind Phone” who visited The Rafu Shimpo offices on Wednesday. “When 9/11 occurred, I couldn’t believe what I was watching was real. I really thought it was a Hollywood move, but no, it’s happening right now.
“When the Tohoku earthquake happened, I had the same feeling, same reaction — what if my loved ones were gone in an instant?”
Also joining the conversation Wednesday were cast members Natsuko Aoike, Akari Harada and Miho Ando, who recalled the horror of watching the March 2011 tsunami unfold on live television.
“You see something like that happening, and you feel completely helpless,” she said. “It’s your own country, where you were born and raised, and you can’t do anything.”
Ando visited Miyagi Prefecture two years after the disaster and said she was overwhelmed by the scale and scope of the destruction.
“There were tons and tons of debris, destroyed buildings and schools and houses,” she remembered. “All I could think was how to help, or what I could do … something, anything.”
Having flown in from New York a day earlier, Aoike was in Japan for a cast party. The event was suddenly halted by the earthquake.
When the expected effects of the ensuing nuclear disaster came into focus, her parents surprised her by insisting she return to the U.S. for her own safety.
“My mom said, ‘We don’t know what’s happening or what’s gonna happen next … You’re still young, you’ll need to create your own family. We’ll be gone before the radiation kicks in, in 30 years. We’re gonna be okay.’”
Aoike’s mother passed last May, after a brief battle with an aggressive cancer, but not before her daughter was able to express her inner feelings before the chance to do so was lost forever.
“In Japan, my parents generation don’t hug, so that’s something I wanted to for years, to give them a real hug,” Aoike.
Ando made mention of one experience on the set of the film, and the other actors instantly chimed in, in agreement.
“We had this amazing phone booth our set designer created, and we could see the beautiful ocean in front of us,” she described. “When you entered the phone booth, there was something magical about it, did you feel it? It was like you were between reality and some other world, standing in between, that helped us to the point we didn’t need to think about acting.”
“The Wind Phone” also features Yukina Takase, Hiroshi Watanabe and, in her screen debut, Linda Chung.
Just turned 11 years old, Harada is far too young to have first-hand memories of Tohoku, but she has seen its effects close to home.
“I knew about it because my mom and her friend held a garage sale to raise money for people who were there,” she explained.
Nearly 10 years on since the disaster, the emotions for many are still fresh, still an ache that never subsides. It is within that never-ending pain where the phone on a secluded cliff offers some small measure of release.
Masaki said he isn’t sure how he might react if, at one of the screenings, he meets an audience member who lived through this calamity.
“What can I say, what can I do at this point? Maybe donations, or emotional support,” he said. “Maybe making this film is a great opportunity to offer support, to say, ‘We’re with you,’ and perhaps they won’t feel so alone and forgotten.”
For a full schedule of features and showtimes at the 2019 Japan Film Festival Los Angeles, visit www.jffla.org.