8 Dec 2011

What are you doing on Sunday night?

Until an hour ago I frankly wouldn’t have been too bothered about what you’re up to on Sunday night. Then I sat down to watch a rough-cut of ITN’s documentary on the Japanese tsunami and all that’s gone. So, please, if you do one thing this coming Sunday at 8.15, watch this film.

Simply because it will take you as close to a natural phenomenon so powerful as to be beyond sense, words, reason – as you would ever want to be. So mesmerising still in these images that you will feel the peculiar inertia of those caught up in it that afternoon on March 11th speak of: the curious calm, the weird sense that the sheer seismic enormity of this simply couldn’t really be happening.

Unfiltered by reporter or narrator, local people retell and recount it now as they filmed it then. The juxtapositioning of calm, poised reflection and dignity – against wild chaotic obliteration on a beyond-industrial scale, is deeply moving.

All of it simply interviews  and remarkable eye-witness video shot that day, that night, the day after.

Silent witness

None of it more remarkable than young Yu Moroga, a medical salesman somehow with a camera, fixed steadily to his car dashboard calmly capturing the long, powerful quake.

He simply drives on. At a normal looking crossroads the cars are stopped at lights. Except a large truck up ahead’s going backwards across the road. The bloke in front gets out and legs it. Yu just stays put. He barely speaks.

He’s surrounded by water then he’s off, floating away. This is insane. But he’s not alone. Another man’s car next to his, now also a boat complete with (still alive) driver wearing anti-flu face-mask!

Still he says little. Still the wipers continue to work whilst all around is obliterating. And still he films and is swept away. I’ll not tell you what happens next but this is in-your-face tsunami video as you will not have seen it.

Other images are searing Рthe vast dust-cloud as they stood on the winding steps that go up the  High School at Minamisanriku. And why the dust? Because here the surge exploded into the town at thirty or forty miles per hour.

The dust? Homes, offices, an entire town being ground to particles. A terrifying vast capillary action as the profoundly disturbed Pacific raged in to hit land and mountains too – squeezing and accelerating across the only flat (built-up) areas.

Extraordinary scenes that night in Kesennuma – a hellish landscape of rubble and vast fires as anything not soaked in saltwater went up in flames from countless electrical shorts and gas cannisters igniting.

Can tsunami-hit towns survive?

Without ever lecturing, the film, through moving archive and people old eought to witness both, speaks of the 1960 tsunami and how the walls and levees built after that were supposed to put an end to this forever.

So it was that in March, so many refused to budge, or moved only slowly, because everyone knew those 15 metre high walls would hold, wouldn’t they? The touching faith of humankind to overcome the force of a natural balance disturbed.

Nor – in the same way – are current issues eight months on, ducked. The anger and frustration at the lack of financial help for many. Right through to the profoundest questions for which the Japanese have, as I write, no answer.

Are these towns really viable? Should they try to rebuild at all? Will the young people stay or drift away. Right now those “Don’t Give Up Kamaichi” or “Don’t Give Up Minamisanriku” banners you see there and you see in this memorable film, seem more aspiration than agreed policy.

But, foremost, this is a devastating portrait of the empires of men and the faith in them, gone in those terrifying minutes. All with the genuine camera-shakes, the screams or “Run!! Run!!” From those who did – to those, caught in the lens that day, who did not.

Genuinely, television as an historical document. A deceptively simple idea admirably executed allowing all the Japanese understatement, dignity and poise, to ring through.

Watch it. Sunday 8.15 on 4.

Alex is on Twitter at @Alextomo

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