Pray for Japan is an interview and follow along documentary that takes place over the first two months after the 2011 Japanese Tsunami. It follows the journey of several different parts of smaller towns as they transition from the initial need to survive, to thinking of rebuilding for the future. It is a slow paced and gentle documentary and its focus on celebrating the spirit of community is what marks it out as a remarkable display of the human condition.
The disasters faced
This real-life documentary takes place from March 11th 2011 through to the end of April.
The documentary and what it covers
Pray for Japan splits into four stories. The first follows how emergency shelters are set up, how they are ran and the challenges they face. The second follows a school that is completely decimated in the tsunami and how they need to salvage what they can and reopen somewhere else as soon as possible. The third follows a teenager who lost almost all his family in the disaster and what family and memory mean to him. Finally, it also covers a variety of volunteer drives and how local, national and international support is vital to Japans recovery.
These four strands are shown in the opening credits song and then we return back to each section as time progresses and is focused solely on the small coastal towns. Each section is weaved together with short poems and shots of the disaster and rebuilding process.
Why is it worth watching?
‘Pray for Japan’ has a different pace and thought process than most disaster documentaries. It is focused on resilience, community spirit and finding the courage to rebuild again rather than dwelling on what actually happened. Everything you’ll see on the disaster itself takes place in the first five minutes. From there, you’ll be constantly wowed and in awe about how everyday people humbly pick up the pieces of their life and continue on.
There are some really interesting observations that I made throughout the piece and ‘Pray for Japan’ works as a cultural dissection too. One shelter owner had some food but not enough to feed everyone and so chose to feed no one until everyone could be treated equally. It was just one of many brave and important decisions that shows the way how community focussed thought processes really brought people together in a crisis. The shelter sections were fascinating because of the logistical issues too. As the towns were flattened, the shelters had to become semi-temporary homes and the transition to that is not simple, but it was taken in stride. Similarly, the volunteer section was both an affirmation that the general public is not all doom and gloom, and also an insight into grassroots intel. The volunteers are busy connecting networks and spreading the word to help aid get to the places that fall between the cracks.
Some of the most heartfelt pieces came from the school section. The school we follow had just finished graduation and sent everyone home for the day but whilst their children had survived, each family had lost loved ones and the new pupils that would be joining were all coming from decimated homes. The teachers knowing that a school would keep families in the disaster zone to enable the rebuild is a canny piece of strategy. Focusing on getting some kind of normality to the children’s lives enables the rebuild elsewhere and the children’s welcome assembly when the new year joins will touch even the stoniest of hearts. Similarly, the family section, whilst underutilised, also brings back the feeling of family and community spirit when he joins in as part of a taiko concert in memory of his younger brother.
There is also one other aspect of ‘Pray for Japan’ that I loved and that was the short pieces of poetry between segments as you see video and photos of the aftermath. Although it is not explained, it felt like the poetry was being spoken from Japan and Mother Nature themselves. There is wounded grief, but also a severed omnipresence to it and whilst it is in tone with the zen, calm pace of the documentary, also feels like a funeral speech of goodbye to those who were lost.
Lastly, the entire film was put together by volunteers, consists of only volunteers and 100% of its profit goes to JEN, a non-profit organisation helping the rebuilding projects in Touhoku.
‘It’s not about give and take. It’s give, give, give.’ Volunteer
Three memorable moments
- The initial food story from the shelter owners
- The welcome assembly speech from the new head boy
- The taiko section and montage towards the end
An absolutely humbling watch, ‘Pray for Japan’ shows how those with nothing band together for support and want to get themselves back on track. They are determined to get back on their feet again and with their gratitude, hard work and human spirit, this shows they can get there soon.
Rating: 4/5 – Excellent
If you liked Pray for Japan then you may like…
- The Land of Hope – for a very personal movie of a family on the exclusion zone
- 911 – Following a fire crew during the events of 911.
- Tsunami: Caught on Camera – a minute by minute account of the 2004 Tsunami through eye witness cameras
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