No one with a television and an internet connection is unfamiliar with the events in March 2011 that resulted in the deaths of roughly nineteen thousand people in the Miyagi prefecture on the east coast of the main island of Honshu, Japan. On a scale of disasters, the 40 metre tsunami that levelled the area is an image that will not be soon forgotten, but for those of us lucky enough to be watching from afar, there is of course a sense of disconnect. We know on an intellectual level what a terrible thing it must have been, we saw for ourselves the destructive power of nature, and we can understand the awful loss of life, but ultimately we can’t really grasp the reality. How could we? Tragedies, like loss, are very personal and subjective things and something of this scale is difficult to comprehend.
Based on a book written by journalist Kota Ishii, Ryoichi Kimizuka’s 2012 film Reunion addresses this question of comprehension by bringing the diasaster down to, dare I say it, a manageable level. Of course, nothing like what happened could be offhandedly considered “manageable” and this is supported in the events that follow as the surviving portion of the city of Kamaishi struggles to respond in the face of such horror.
Kamaishi is a town divided by a river – one side against the sea, and the other on the side of a mountain. From the perspective of the people living, working and going about their daily lives in the higher parts of the town, all they know is that the area has been hit by a significant earthquake. Phone lines and power lines are down, home and building contents are strewn about. Earthquakes, even ones big enough to knock things off shelves and walls are if not commonplace then at least relatively familiar. People just wait for the quake to stop (they wait to see if it will stop), and then they start the process of putting everything back in place.
As omniscient witness to the events directly following the quake, you find yourself in a poignant position. You already know what’s happened and what these people are about to find themselves facing, and you can’t save them from it any more than you can save the untold victims. But quite deliberately, the focus of this film is not in fact the familiar scenes of devastation as seen on the news. Instead, it focuses on the efforts of the people tasked to receive and identify the victims, a potentially macabre topic that is handled here with great sensitivity.
Aiba (Toshiyuki Nishida) is an aged social worker, retired 3 years from his job as a funeral director. When he witnesses the tragedy for himself he quickly volunteers his assistance, not in helping recover the dead but in ensuring that the remains that are found are treated with the respect and dignity that they deserve. Out of sheer desperation, Aiba enlists three Municipal Office staff (Michitaka Tsutsui, Mirai Shida, and Ryo Katsuji) who have been put in charge of the coordination efforts of the makeshift morgue and are in no way equipped to cope.
As the story progresses, Aiba provides focus and direction both for the characters and for the movie. As a narrative vehicle, this role is critical. Without it, well, let’s just say it would have been a soulless account of a hellish moment in time and that two wrongs definitely do not make a right. But with Aiba as the pivot around which things revolve on the micro level, this movie highlights those things about people in crisis that elevates them (and by extension, us) above mere animals. Aiba’s insistence on the respectful treatment of the dead for the sake of their relatives and loved ones helps highlight if not what is important then at least what shouldn’t be forgotten, particularly in the face of so much loss – basic human compassion.
And there’s not much more to say about this film. The performances are solid and not, given the circumstances, melodramatic or overly saccharine. There are a couple of truly hard hitting moments (different things for different people – someone I was talking to said it was when they were bringing in the children, but for me it was when the priest who comes to pray for the dead can’t actually get through his prayer), but for the most part this is not a story that aims to slap you out of your apathy. All it’s trying to do is give you some insight, and in that it succeeds.
There’s nothing truly revelatory revelatory here, since it’s not exactly a film for entertainment. What it is, is an account of humanity on a scale that we can truly understand and relate to – the individual scale. It manages to drive home the mundane realities of this or any disaster. Unlike a Roland Emmerich film, this kind of natural, cataclysmic event doesn’t serve to single out any one person for the role of hero, and even the definition of the word is questionable. Heroes are just people doing what they can and must despite the situation they’ve found themselves in. None of them know the perfect thing to do or say that will help make anything better, but the mere fact that they’re trying is what makes the difference, no matter how small or seemingly insignificant.
Reunion is screening as part of the 17th Japanese Film Festival until December 8. Please check the website for screening times in your city.