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‘The Sketch of Mujō (Mujou sobyou)’: Impressions of Surviving a Tsunami

“I lost my friends and relatives,” says a woman wearing a surgical mask. “There will be cremations soon. I feel almost numb. Something is wrong with me. I’m basically fine, though.” As she speaks, the camera holds more or less steady on her face, which betrays she is feeling anything but numb. “I have to rev myself up and keep on,” she goes on, closing her eyes as if to pace herself. “For a while, there was no TV, but now we’re getting it back. While there was no TV, there was no way for us to see what it was like. Now that I can see it on TV, I feel kind of vulnerable.”

You don’t see what she might have see on TV in The Sketch of Mujō (Mujou sobyou). Rather than the sensational footage that filled long minutes on NHK or CNN or the and BBC, Koichi Omiya’s documentary offers images after the event, impressions of survival. Filmed from 28 April through 4 May, it features workers sorting through debris and long tracking shots of debris, interviewees who show their homes in shambles and wonder about what to do next.

Screening 25 October as part of the Dialogue of Cultures Film Festival in New York, the documentary conveys both loss and resilience. Walking through her wrecked house, a woman sorts through family photos she’s recovered. Though her parents and grandparents have worked on this coast for generations, she says, her view of life is now changed forever. “My children no longer fish,” she notes, “So I was thinking of moving away because disasters like this may happen again.” Her daughter appears nearby, a mask covering her mouth as she speaks. “When the sun shines on it, the sea just looks gorgeous,” she says, “And the fish!” But as much as she once loved to “jog by the sea,” her perspective is changed too, a point the film doesn’t need to underline.

Instead, it cuts to an interview with a monk, seated inside his temple as he observes, “When nature turns savage, they regard it as a divine force. The gods may rage at times. We are left to wonder what is behind this divine rage.” Rather than explaining “nature,” he observes people’s responses to it. He’s not describing cause and effect, or even reflecting on “divine rage,” but considering how the notion of the divine serves the communities who believe in it.

The film returns to the monk for other observations as well, including a brief definition of the concept “mujō,” that is, “nothing stays the same,” or again, to describe another disaster he saw in Laos, when a bridge was destroyed: Laotians, he summarizes, are “very philosophical about their bridges,” building them of bamboo, as opposed to perfecting technologies that might make them withstand a flood. “They know nothing stays the same,” he says, “Their bridges get destroyed, they don’t grieve over them.”

As a sketch of “mujō,” the film keeps a distance that suggests intimacy, but also respect. Repeatedly, you see objects — cars and boats slammed into one another, a plastic horse, muddied photos — and figures, workers in coveralls or kids playing along sidewalks lined with debris. The camera is close on a fisherman as he sifts through remains, observing that the damage extends beyond his own broken boat: the dam for the nearby Oya Mine was destroyed by the earthquake, he says, and “mineral poison flowed out to sea.” It’s a deadly poison, he assesses, “just like the nuclear power plant.” A moment later, he discloses that his grandson is in college in Yamagata and will be “working” next year, that is, there will be no more fishermen in the family. Thus, in one shot, steady on the old man as he thinks back and ahead, the scene indicates both an utterly personal story and one that extends across generations.

Another elderly survivor is discovered by the filmmaker in the car where she’s been staying with her family. “I’m sorry for being the way I am, I am just so…” she says. “I can’t help it, but I am so old, almost 100.” As you might wonder what she’s seen in those many years of living, her image is overlaid by another woman’s voice, perhaps her daughter’s, describing what happened during the tsunami (“She got agitated and started clapping her hands”). A few scenes later, the older woman is quiet, actually sleeping. The camera pulls out slowly from a tight shot of her face, as a sound of something that sounds like static is all you hear. Within a few seconds, you see where she’s sleeping, on the car’s back seat: she looks so peaceful and still. The sound may be rain.

The film’s impressions aren’t so much poetic as precise. A farmer makes his way through what’s left of his facility, pointing to a machine for which he recently paid two million yen. “We won’t be able to use this for planting the paddies anymore,” he says, then adds that he’s been visited by “people saying they’ll clear stuff, charging 10,000 yen to take this away.” He sighs, “Of course I refused,” which means he’s left with junk on land that he can’t farm. He leads the film crew through his home, which is standing, if chaotic. “I’ve heard it’s much, much worse elsewhere,” he says, the camera panning over furniture in heaps. “I am luckier than some,” he says, “At least I can try to sort this out.”

RATING 8 / 10