How to remember 3.11?

Post-Fukushima documentary and the politics of Tōhoku Documentary Trilogy (2011-2013)

by Ran Ma


The Tōhoku Documentary Trilogy (Tōhoku kiroku eiga sanbusaku), co- directed by Hamaguchi Ryūsuke and Sakai Kō, consists of four doc- umentary features, namely Sound of Waves (Nami no oto, 2011), Voices from the Waves Shinchimachi (Nami no koe Shinchimachi, 2013), Voices from the Waves Kesennuma (Nami no koe Kesennuma, 2013), and Storytellers (Utau hito, 2013).1 Northeastern Japan (i.e., the Tōhoku area) was struck by the Triple Disaster of earthquake (the Great East Japan Earthquake), tsunami, and nuclear leak on 11 March 2011 – now known as “3.11.” With the support and sponsorship from cultural bodies such as the Japan Arts Fund, Sendai Mediatheque  (in  coordination  with  their  founding of Centre for Remembering 3.11 in May 2011), and Tokyo University of the Arts, Hamaguchi and Sakai were able to travel to the tsunami-stricken areas as early as April 2011 to start filming. Under such apocalyptic circumstances where homes and hometowns are destroyed, lives lost, and people’s life trajectories and psyche irreversibly changed by the catastrophe and its consequences, a burning question that has been pressing if not haunting lots of art practitioners – artists and filmmakers alike – concerns what art can do in the aftermath of 3.11 apropos its role within “a wider social, economic, and political context” (Mōri 2015, 170).  A crucial question posed in this chapter concerns how we could use the Tōhoku Documentary Trilogy to better rethink the  politics of artmaking and filmmaking in a post-Fukushima society.

Under a heuristic category that I propose as the “Post-Fukushima Documentary,” this chapter first draws attention to a wide spectrum of documentary-making praxes that have emerged in conjunction with the discourses of remembering and therefore, forgetting, apropos of the triple disaster in post-3.11 Japan. I particularly look at how some of the independent documentary works by Japanese filmmakers, characterized with their cinéma verité style and “on-the-scene” aesthetics,2 have potentially contested the archiving efforts initiated by, for instance, the public broadcaster NHK (Nippon Hōsō Kyōkai, Japan Broadcasting Corporation). The intention is not to suggest a simplistic, binary view in opposing the multi-scalar institutional, transmedia efforts instantiated by NHK’s practices, against those of independent documentarists. Binarism as such can hardly accommodate the diversity of 3.11-related documentary practices in terms of style and  the  choice of subjects. And the “NHK-versus-independent documentary” model will be further complicated if we take into account  the rhizomatic network and platforms of producing and circulating these media contents and film works, although I cannot elaborate on the latter point in this chapter.3 Arguably, as part of its work of archiving, NHK’s 3.11-related “testimony” videos, in threading together interviews with the disaster survivors and witnesses, have been edited and processed in such a uniform manner in reinforcing a pre-established ideological framework about post-disaster resilience and reconstruction.

This chapter highlights how the Tōhoku Documentary Trilogy has exemplified an alternative mode of filmmaking that intervenes in the common documentary practices around 3.11. French philosopher Jacques Rancière’s discussions on politics and aesthetics help me to elucidate how I approach the interrelations between politicization and depoliticization. For Rancière, politics concerns the “distribution of the sensible,” regarding how the “conditions of sense perception” may be disrupted and reconfigured (Panagia and Deranty 2014, 96). As the philosopher illuminates, politics revolves around “what is seen and what can be said about it, around who has the ability to see and the talent to speak, around the properties of spaces and the possibilities of time” (Rancière 2011, 13). That is, politics occurs in the form of a dispute within the settled, hierarchical order and perceptual arrangements wherein subjects are only assigned “given roles, possibilities, and competences,” a situation considered to be “consensus” (Rancière, Carnevale, and Kelsey 2007, 263). With Rancière, I argue that the debate of de/politicization would remain superficial if it cannot be connected with an understanding of politics as a dynamic process wherein “the conditions of possibility of discourses on politics” are constantly questioned (Baumbach 2010, 58). Politicization and depoliticization should not be viewed in static antagonism, and a scenario of (de)politicization may deviate from the Rancièrian “politics” given how it may still be “conditioned by a framework of consensus and inclusion that attempts to neutralize the radical dimension of political equality”(Baumbach 2010, 58). Crucially, the politics of the aesthetic act shall be understood as “permanent guerrilla war” (Rancière, Carnevale, and Kelsey 2007, 266) in disrupting the “conventional forms of looking, of hearing, of perceiving,” and a dispute as such is conceptualized as “dissensus” (Panagia and Deranty 2014, 103). In the context of this study, I argue, the question of politicization or political engagement shall be re-framed as an issue of aesthetic intervention. And our focus shall be shifted onto how the ways that filmmaking/image-making have been correlated to the “mode of appearance,” regarding who can say and hear what, where, and when (see Demos 2013), and concerning how the dividing line between the visible and invisible, between the audible and noise, is constantly drawn and redrawn.

To be more specific, my survey of Tōhoku Documentary Trilogy revolves around a two-fold question. On the one hand, it examines the mode of content and the mode of expression or stylistic choice regarding how Hamaguchi and Sakai have reinvented and transformed the conventional interview through the cinematic mechanism of storytelling. I argue that another critical issue underpins political agency. However, my focus is not on the filmmakers’ role in political mobilization and activism per se; rather, I turn to how the documentaries contribute to re-configuring the sensible fabrics, so that previously invisible and marginalized subjects, together with their sensibilities and feelings, may emerge to take part in the field of aesthetics.

Departing from post-Fukushima documentary

Responding to the sense of urgency when confronted with the overwhelming experience of the triple disaster, image-makers (filmmakers and artists) of diverse backgrounds from within Japan and beyond have set out to grapple with the wide-ranging subject matters surrounding 3.11. They have started highly diversified documentary filmmaking projects that I will examine through the heuristic of “Post-Fukushima Documentary” (shortened to PFD). These works engage multi-layered discourses that have been generated and delimited by the triple catastrophe and its aftermath, which are understandably interlaced with various socio-political, economic, ecological, and humanist persuasions that have come to frame the “evidence” intended by the filmmakers and/or production entities and render them plausible. According to film scholar Fujiki Hideaki, these 3.11 documentaries “have constituted a tendentious yet contested terrain for the imagination” in relation to nuclear catastrophe (2017, 91), connected with entangled issues such as neoliberal post-crisis management, and biopolitical control and surveillance in present-day Japanese society. Despite the different ideological underpinnings characterizing these PFD image-works, I believe a study of their political potentialities entails a rethinking of the “commonly accepted denomination ‘3.11’” which for so- ciologist Christophe Thouny underlines a consensual discourse about “Fukushima Japan.” For Thouny, the consensual logic aims to “cancel the eventfulness of the catastrophe, its possibilities for change and opening, by reinscribing it inside a well-known postwar narrative of reconstruction and development and circumscribing its effects to a limited and closed time and place” (2017, 2) wherein “the eventfulness 3.11” is reduced to “well-known tropes of victimization, resilience, and national reconstruction” (2017, 3). He has thus indicated that to achieve a critique of 3.11, we need to consider how the catastrophe disrupts the teleological narration of postwar Japan, in revealing “its unresolved tensions and contradictions,” and how the site-specific disaster has in fact made visible  “the interconnectedness of our present reality and the continuity between places and events on a global scale” (2017, 6).


To categorize and comb through a whole body of PFD works, with new films still being made, is beyond the focus of this chapter. For the sake of the discussions to follow, one could possibly depart from the disparate, some-times overlapping institutional layouts (or the lack thereof) in producing, circulating, and exhibiting PFD works according to three strands: television documentaries (made by both public and private broadcasters) as well as image projects associated with the government-corporate power (see Fujiki 2017); artist works (e.g., the video works by contemporary art collective “Chim Pom”); and independent film productions.4 Noticeably, most Japanese independent documentaries mentioned in this chapter, including the Trilogy, have been circulated in arthouse theatres and on the domestic and international film festival network.5 On the other, while artists’ videos have been predominantly circulated and exhibited at museums and art galleries, TV documentaries and state- corporate sponsored film projects are also circulated and/or streamed online through the official sites, as well as via diverse video-sharing and (paid) streaming service platforms such as YouTube, Netflix, and Amazon Prime Video. Approaching the PFD, for example, Fujiki mentioned Living in Fukushima: A Story of Decontamination and Reconstruction (Fukushima ni ikiru: Josen to fukkō no monogatari, 2013), a documentary sponsored by the Ministry of Environment and the  Prefectural  Government of Fukushima and produced by Japan’s United Nations University. More blatantly promotional, if not propogandist efforts from the Japanese state might be a film like 3.11 Great East Japan Earthquake, Self-Defence Forces’ Disaster Relief: Memories of the Bond (3.11 Higashi nihon daishinsai, Jieitai saigai haken: Kizuna no kioku, 2012), which can be accessed on Netflix as well as Amazon Prime Video (Japan). Along the unfolding timeline of the 3.11 triple disaster, the documentary chronicled how the Japan Self-Defence Forces (Jieitai or JSDF), with its air, mar- itime, and ground operations, had collectively  dedicated  themselves  to the relief efforts in Tōhoku. Despite the leitmotif of “bond,” which seems to also suggest the JSDF’s bonding with the (Tōhoku) people, the documentary has chosen to privilege the point of view of the JSDF in solely foregrounding interviews with the (all-male) JSDF officers, members, and officials from the Bōeishō (Ministry of Defence), with “talking heads” segments supported by footage about their well-organized, passionate  relief operations. With no specific director but only the names of the narrator (also a male voice actor) and the producer’s indicated, this documentary does not hide the fact that it resulted from the collaboration between the Ministry of Defence, Sōgō Bakuryō Kanbu (Joint Staff Office, JSO), Japan Ground Self-Defence Force, Japan Maritime Self-Defence Force, and Japan Air Self-Defence Force.

NHK’s 3.11 archives

NHK launched their “Great East Japan Earthquake Archives” (Higashi Nihon  Daishinsai   Ākaibusu, hereafter “3.11 Archives”)  online from 1 March 2012 (with an English page from 2016), with part of the web contents regularly broadcast on TV at the time of writing. The “Archives” has been organized with an aim to not only keep a “record” (kiroku) of the unprecedented disaster, but to maintain the 3.11-related “memories” (kioku) for future generations to come, so that it can help to “preserve and spread vital knowledge about how people fought to survive” and contribute to “future disaster prevention”(Irie, Higashiyama, and Mimori 2018). Mainly consisting of short videos, images, and sound recordings, the “Archives” has been categorized under themes such as “Records of the Earthquake” (Shinsai no kiroku), “Toward the Reconstruction” (Fukkō ni mukate) and “Learning from the Lessons” (Kyōgun o ikasu) and so forth.6 For instance, the sidebar of “Testimonies of That Day” (Anohi no shogen, hereafter “shogen” videos) offers a compilation of five or six-minute-long online videos in which each witness gives an account of how they responded to and survived the disaster, which are supplemented with full transcripts (as online text) and details of the interview (e.g., location map and the date of interview).

For examples we can turn to one of the Kesennuma episodes (a coastal disaster-stricken area that was also visited by the Trilogy crew), in which a female commentator describes Mr Satō’s heroic action of rescuing a woman who was being carried away by flood waters in the tsunami on 11 March (interview conducted on 21 September 2011). In this video, Satō is brought back to the scene, sharing with the camera how, while floating in a plastic trunk in the tsunami waves, he spotted a woman struggling in the water and decided to save her. This short sequence intercuts between Satō’s accounts and a page of coloured photo reportage from the local newspaper that miraculously captured the moment of his rescue. It is intriguing how the online version of the testimonial video, despite its short duration, has been divided into three “chapters,” each of which has been given a caption underlining the progression of Satō’s courageous act. Other testimonial videos within the online “Archives” also share similar narrative structure and stylistic preferences.

NHK’s digital archiving with the “3.11 Archives” can be juxtaposed with other similar archiving practices by the same institution. For instance, around 2015, NHK hired professional archivists to organize an “Earthquake News Report Archive” (Shinsai hōdō ākaibu). Reading through the insider report explicating the process of building up and curating the “Report Archive” (see Irie, Higashiyama, and Mimori 2018), one could also gain insights into NHK’s systematic approach in sorting out its archival items and objects for the “3.11 Archives” where a strikingly similar mode of categorization is followed.

NHK’s “shogen” videos are edited in such a professional fashion to meet the technological specificities and content standards for TV broadcasting and to cater to mainstream audiences and customers from within Japan. One may also appreciate the fact that the “Archives” has persistently amassed and continuously presented testimonies collected from people of various backgrounds and from different places across Tōhoku and from outside the area. It is not my intention here to simply defy NHK’s affective labour dedicated to its imagined community, or to refute the truth value of the testimonies presented in, for instance, any specific “shogen” video. My concerns are how the testimonies and interviews have been assembled and presented, for which purposes, and how it may relate to a critique of 3.11 as suggested by Thouny.

If we understand archive not as “a value-free site of document collec- tion” but rather as “the site of contestation of power, memory, and identity” (Schwartz and Cook 2002, 6), it is important to ask what has been “remembered” and therefore also “forgotten” when the testimonies have been selected and translated into such lucid and accessible archival items. Arguably, NHK’s work of archiving is in fact about how to “tame” the overwhelming materials related to Fukushima and 3.11, in constructing and maintaining a consensual discursive space. To understand such a consensual space around 3.11, Fujiki proposes that we may grasp the public sphere in post-Fukushima Japan as one that “pressures the residents not to voice contrary opinions for fear spoiling the friendly atmosphere and popular groundswell towards reconstruction,” wherein the government and mass media have tended to espouse the discourses of “safety and human bonds” (kizuna) in tandem with policies of neoliberalist social-engineering (2017, 93).

Returning to the “3.11 Archives,” in terms of the choice of subjects, controversial issues such as the government’s and TEPCO (Tokyo Electric Power Company)’s crisis management in dealing with (the aftermath of) the triple disaster, are hardly tackled. Experiences with the catastrophe, despite their diversity and irrationality, are preserved as “testimonies” and processed as “lessons” (kyōgun) to be learnt for the future. Accordingly, what has been foregrounded in the “Archives” is the rational idea of “disaster prevention” (bōsai).

In terms of the documentary style, one may pay attention to how the omnipresent voiceover and its solemn tone have prescribed how the videos guide the viewers to engage with the survivors’ stories. Most importantly, the “Archives” is organized in such a way as to underscore the teleological time in narrating post-Fukushima Japan. For example, the videos have neatly interwoven the memories (narrated by the voiceover and the inter- viewees) together with the post-disaster realities (the “nowness” of the disaster-stricken areas) within certain pre-established discursive frame- works about solidarity, resilience, and the “cruel optimism” of believing in overcoming the disaster (see Berlant 2006).

As sharply pointed out by cultural critic Fujita Naoya, NHK’s 3.11-related documentaries have “avoided the obscenity (waisetsusa) of the ‘reality’” and instead present audiences with neatly constructed documentaries, by appealing to them “with themes like reconstruction and sorrow” (Fujita 2016, 88–89). It is worth looking at how NHK deals with the irrational and traumatic dimensions of 3.11 experiences by turning to one of its TV Specials, Together with the Deceased from the Earthquake (Shinsai de no nakihito to, 2013). In the documentary, all protagonists gave accounts of their unexplainable experiences of “reunifying” with their loved ones who had already died or gone missing in the 2011 disaster. As the Special’s director Sano Hiroki explained, the documentary team was at first quite con-fused by these supernatural, uncanny accounts that they collected during their fieldwork. According Sano, these stories about wishful “reunification,” however poignant, are disturbing in nature, given that no account could be scientifically “authenticated” or supported. “Whereas there have been lots of reports on realities that the eyes could see, shall we also report on those realities that the eyes cannot verify?” asked the director. Concerned with ethical issues, the programme-makers selected four central pieces of narrative and manoeuvred to frame them as the psychological symptoms of people who suffer tremendous trauma. Avoiding terms such as “ghost” or “illusion,” the production team managed to integrate these stories with a dis-course of “painful experiences of miserable people” (see Sano 2014), thus calling for attention to the 3.11 survivors’ mental health.

For Fujita, “obscenity” (waisetsusa) is not used negatively to refer to specific object or practice, but connotes the spectatorial engagement with the unimaginable, overwhelming, yet spectacular images of/about 3.11, which also implies ethical issues in the practices of looking (he gave the example of how people may find pleasure and beauty in the post-destruction landscape that was made possible by the disaster). Also, he uses “waisetsusa” to interrogate, amidst the abundance of 3.11 images, whether imagination and reality (genjitsu), fiction and non-fiction can be clearly demarcated, and how documentary-making can resist the allure of “waisetsusa” while engaging with the spectacle of 3.11 (2016, 88–89). Arguably, what has been excluded, repressed, and marginalized in the NHK “3.11 Archives” are exactly the messy, irrational, sometimes subversive aspects of the catastrophe, and the temporal disjunctures they have provoked and made perceptible. From such a viewpoint, the phantasmal “reunification” with the deceased in the previously mentioned NHK special has exactly pinpointed the thrust of the disparate temporalities, and understandably, they need to be contained and assimilated into the consensual discourse about the teleological time.

“On the Scene”at Fukushima

In this study, I foreground independent documentaries that feature inter- views with the survivors and victims in Tōhoku: compared with the NHK “shogen” videos, not only an all-knowing and neutral narrator’s voice is absent, but also the filmmaker’s intervention has been foregrounded, though to different degrees. Although the independent documentarists under examination have also demonstrated their archival impulses in collecting and preserving “testimonies” for today’s Japanese society as well as for the future generations to come, what is at stake here concerns how they have achieved this, both in terms of the mode of content and the mode of expression, and also how it may relate to a critique of 3.11, in possibly disrupting consensual understanding about the triple catastrophe.

Matsubayashi Yoju’s Fukushima: Memories of the Lost Landscape (Soma kanka daiichibu: ubawareta tochi no kioku, 2011, hereafter Landscape) is a good example.7 In Landscape, Matsubayashi rushed to Fukushima right after the triple disaster took place, and turned his camera to the survivors and the “lost landscape” he saw at Minami-Soma, the tsunami-stricken city only 20 kilometres from TEPCO’s Fukushima Daiichi Nuclear Power Plant (known as “Daiichi”). Nevertheless, his observational segments were complicated, and also complemented by the filmmaker’s self-positioning within the text.

Landscape opens with how the filmmaker, upon realizing the occurrence of a massive earthquake in the afternoon of 11 March 2011, started to record the moment of the earthquake at his Tokyo apartment (see Mori et al. 2012). In early April 2011, armed with his digital video camera, Matsubayashi travelled on his friend’s truck to deliver relief goods to Minami-Soma. The crippled plant was by then notorious in global news due to its impending meltdown and potential explosion. The filmmaker observed how groups of local evacuees at Minami-Soma were coping with their post- disaster collective lives at a temporary evacuation centre (the classrooms at a local high school), after their home areas were declared part of the nuclear disaster zone and they were forbidden to enter unless otherwise permitted. In the latter half of the documentary, the government began to tightly control the disaster zone from late April 2011. With media at home and abroad putting more focus on reporting on Fukushima and related issues, Matsubayashi again returned to the evacuees.

Landscape is in itself typical among the PFD independent works re- garding how the digital video cameras (DV), together with other digital filming technologies, have enabled and facilitated the filmmakers’ timely, spontaneous action and intervention as they ventured into the forbidden zones at Fukushima (and similar cordoned-off areas) right after the triple disaster took place. Matsubayashi’s aesthetic practice is not unique among his peers – together they have experimented with a different modus oper-andi that tries to redistribute who and what may become visible and what can be heard in the post-Fukushima socio-political sphere, so that the catastrophe can be seen in a new light.8 In Landscape, Matsubayashi and  his camera explored the “lost landscape” without elaborate pre-planning regarding what he would actually approach, survey, and record, given the unimaginable magnitude of the catastrophe and the spontaneity of the documentary project itself. Importantly, he seemed to share a sense of urgency and responsibility in documenting how the devastating, traumatic impact of the disaster was being experienced, felt, and understood by the survivors at the Tōhoku area in real time and on location.

For instance, upon arriving at Minami-Soma, the filmmaker encountered a middle-aged city councilwoman (an evacuee herself) named Tanaka. It was because of this encounter that Matsubayashi decided to stay longer for this documentary project. He was able to follow Tanaka on patrol around their old neighbourhood, now designated part of the disaster zone. Devastated by the tsunami, this area had almost all its residents evacuated due to the Daiichi nuclear plant’s unpredictable situation at the time. Walking around the ghost town–like area, Matsubayashi’s movement images are sometimes unstable and discontinuous as the filmmaker tried to follow his guide na- vigating through the abandoned neighbourhood. During their visit, Tanaka occasionally described to him what she remembered about “that day,” and from time to time exchanged opinions with the filmmaker. Whereas the patrol was already part of Tanaka’s post-disaster routine before the arrival of the JSDF, Matsubayashi needed to respond to what he saw and experienced “right here” and “right now,” therefore his DV camera constituted part of the filmmaker’s response mechanism and apparatus of exploration. Audiences can see his DV’s viewfinder being constantly adjusted and switched and understand the contingency as indicative of the profilmic realities on the scene.

In the context of Chinese independent documentaries, Luke Robinson has examined the theory of xianchang (the Chinese term roughly equivalent with “on the scene” or “on the spot”), considering it “a product of the contingent ‘now’ of shooting live, inflected by the particular interpretations of individual filmmakers at a given moment, and structured by the conditions of production under which they worked” (2013, 101). I am not suggesting that Robinson’s thesis on xianchang could be directly applied to the study of observational and verité documentaries in PFD. Nevertheless, it is intriguing to see how the “on the scene” observations in Landscape are characterized with images of instability in capturing the profilmic reality in a somewhat unexpected, less controllable way, which foregrounds “the contingency of liveness as an experience bounded in time as well as in space” (Robinson 2013, 80). Hence these images, however mediated, are at the same time in themselves evidence of the “here and now” under the precarious conditions of the triple disaster; in being “in-the-now” these images have also loosened their relations with the past and become less certain about the future. In Landscape, an authoritative, illuminating voiceover is absent, whereas the evacuees’ opinions and discussions are documented and presented in juxtaposition with the filmmaker’s own thoughts of guilt, confusion, and vulnerability, mainly conveyed through intertitles. Landscape registered a certain degree of urgency in circulating imaginaries of post-3.11 Fukushima, as opposed to what was offered by NHK’s polished “shogen” shorts, or other TV and Internet news. It is telling that, with its self-reflexive form, Landscape did not seek to impose the truth about Minami-Soma or about the evacuees upon the audiences, but left it to the latter to decide how to respond to the images and voices, which constitutes a crucial layer of its politics concerning an active yet indeterminate spectatorship, a point that I shall return to later.

Tōhoku Documentary Trilogy: beyond the annihilated landscape

On the surface, works in the Trilogy appear to be nothing more than assemblages of interviews with people – mostly with the survivors – that   the duo of filmmakers encountered during their trips along the Sanriku coast.9 Storytellers (Utau hito) is slightly different from the other three films in that it is about how the filmmakers followed Ono Kazuko, the founder of Miyagi Association of Folklore (Miyagi minwa no kai), to meet with veteran storytellers across Miyagi and invite them to share their folk stories in front of the camera; therefore, their sharing is not directly about 3.11 experiences. I will return to Storytellers briefly in the ending section.

On the one hand, it is tempting to consider how the four films are structured as a series of “road movies” across the Tōhoku coastal areas (see Iwasaki 2013). In Sound of Waves, the first film of the trilogy, for instance, what sutures the interview sequences across various locales are shots taken from within and in front of the filmmakers’ moving vehicle, upon which the animated map of their travelling route and the names of places they visited are superimposed. On the other, despite their itinerant nature, works in the Trilogy have refrained from staring too closely at the monstrous landscape across the disaster-stricken areas, the disturbing, spectacular nature of which has been discussed by Fujita Naoya in terms of “obscenity” as illustrated earlier. Unlike many filmmakers including Matsubayashi, the directors of  the Trilogy showed less interest in proffering first-hand, newsworthy re- portage of Tōhoku’s annihilated landscape and the worrying conditions faced by most evacuees and survivors. As Hamaguchi and Sakai have in- sightfully pondered, at a time when various types of “information” (jōhō) and images about the 3.11 disasters, including (moving) images captured by mobile phones and those broadcast on television, had become over-  whelmingly abundant, and when various digital platforms had made the sharing and circulation of such images increasingly easy and more con- venient, for what purposes is a documentary on 3.11 needed? (Fujii et al. 2015; see Katarogu (Log of Talks), 2014). I would also add, if audiences or distant observers still desire to “see” more of post-disaster Fukushima and Tōhoku, what would those images look like?

Upon arriving at the scene, Hamaguchi was overwhelmed by the ruined landscape, to the extent that he was not sure where to position his camera and which direction it should be turned – a feeling also shared by Sakai. Hamaguchi explained that as the “landscape” became indistinguishable from the debris, they should turn to the local residents in order to re-experience the “characteristic landscape” (koyūteki fūkei) (Fujii et al. 2015, 169–171). For instance, Hamaguchi explains in his narration for Sound of Waves, “Places devastated by a tsunami won’t always be prepared by the next. People who live through them and pass the story down are vital. Without them, it’s like having no images of the devastation, and instead having an empty landscape.” Intriguingly, in the opening part of Sound of Waves, Hamaguchi also explains the title of the work – the “sound” (oto) of tsunami. He describes what can be heard when the tsunami is about to strike at a short interval after the earthquake. Literal description as it seems, the filmmaker hints at the differentiated sensational experiences about/of the disaster, and specifically the gaps between the visible and the invisible (the audible). Hence I suggest that the documentaries in the Trilogy have been titled with “sound,” “voice” and “storyteller” not simply because the filmmakers are interested in discovering issues about narration in the documentary genre per se. Rather, Hamaguchi and Sakai have paid attention to the very organizational form    of the sensible, which (re)defines who can say and hear what, where, and when (see Demos 2013).

Towards a modern political cinema

Sound of Waves opens with an eight-minute-long take of a picture  story show (kamishibai) performed by an old lady who later introduces herself. The lady recounts the story of a girl called Yocchan, who survived the massive tsunami in 1933 that destructively swept the Sanriku coast including her village called Taro, the locale where the interview was taking place. Rich in details, the tale describes how Yocchan, upon witnessing the aftermath of the tsunami after being brought to meet her injured family, reacted to the disaster dramatically. The story ends with the girl yelling out her curse, “Ocean, I hate you!”10

In the interview sequence that follows, Tabata Yoshi, the ageing ka- mishibai performer, and her younger sister, Azuma Kinu – both at their 80s, introduce themselves to the camera, talking about how the historical tsunami disasters in 1896 and 1933 affected their family members and hometown (furusato). This opening interview sequence, which intercuts between medium close-ups and the over-the-shoulder shots of the two ladies, is characteristic of the dominant style of other works in the Trilogy including Storytellers. In Sound of Waves, Hamaguchi and Sakai interviewed six groups of eleven local residents as they were driving south along the tsunami-stricken Sanriku coastal areas across Taro, Kesennuma, Minami sanrikucho, Ishinomaki, Higashi-Matsushima, and Shinchimachi. Most of the interviewees are family members (couples), colleagues, and friends so they shared similar memories about their homes and the disaster. There are two exceptions wherein Hamaguchi and Sakai respectively appeared onscreen for one-to-one interview(s), when the interviewees are not paired with their families or friends.

I argue that the Trilogy does not depart from the premise that the political subjects and their alliances are already there, only waiting to be seen and to be represented, even though the interviews featured in the Trilogy were designed in such a way as to correspond with already-existing types of bonding and solidarity at the local level. We can approach this re- presentation through the work of Gilles Deleuze, who theorized modern political cinema within a Euro-centred context as a reflection upon the end of World War II, the Nazi concentration camps, and Stalinism. For Deleuze, one of the problematics that modern political cinema is confronted with is that “the people no longer exist, or not yet … the people are missing(Deleuze 1989, 216; emphasis original). This does not mean that there are no people in modern political cinema. Rather, what is missing “is the sense of the organic formation of the collective, a process that is presented as identical to the teleological unfolding (or progressive linear movement) of history, and more concretely the history of the revolution” (Maimon 2010, 86). The Deleuzian perspective is relevant to our discussions on the politics of PFD and specifically the Trilogy, because it sheds light on the issue of political subjectivization in the aftermath of the triple catastrophe, by emphasizing the precarious conditions of political agency, which essentially relates to the sensible and conceptual arrangements around political part-taking.

Apropos modern political cinema, the role of artists and filmmakers alike has been redefined. Their task is no longer to represent the people as unified, but to address a people “who do not yet exist or whose existence is precisely what is at stake” (Maimon 2010, 86). To accomplish this, it is necessary to foreground the “inventing” of a people by means of “fabulation,” which could be grasped as a form of narration or storytelling that “affirms ‘fiction as a power and not as a model’” (Deleuze 1989, 152). For Deleuze, fabu- lation can be achieved through the speech act of “double-becoming,” wherein “the author takes a step towards his characters,  but  the  characters take a step towards the author” (1989, 222), and thus it becomes difficult to differentiate the auteur’s speech from that of diverse characters and narrators, with the boundaries between both becoming ambiguous. Throughout this process, importantly, the filmmaker “does not give a voice to the people in the sense that he doesn’t speak for them,” but creates the space to allow the people to take the stage and speak (see Frangville 2016, 114; emphasis original).

The position of the camera(s) and the fictional timeline

To better grasp the dynamics of fabulation, I want to look at the mechanism of “listening” and “talking” in the interview-oriented Trilogy, for which I will mainly use Sound of Waves as my example. On the one hand, I turn to kiku – meaning listening, interviewing, inquiring, and learning, which lays more emphasis on the interlocutors’ efforts to listen and to elicit personal accounts. Another aspect concerns kataru – meaning speaking and telling. At the same time, I will examine the interview’s mode of expression, which concerns the camerawork and editing. I also explore how the interviews have constituted an apparatus of sorts producing and circulating feelings and affectivity. This is not only about how the interviewer and interviewee has expressed themselves emotionally and reacted bodily when they are recalling what took place apropos 3.11. Inspired by Sara Ahmed in  her examination of the cultural politics of emotion (2014), I also look at how the interview sequence has constructed scenarios wherein emotions are triggered, felt, and circulated through intersubjective connections, which further correlates with the invention of a becoming community.

Shedding light on their design of the camerawork for the interview, Hamaguchi illustrates:

The method that we call interview seems to make whatever the concerned party (tōjisha) is talking about sound like truth, which is      not the case in reality. Yet we simply forget about such presumptions. On such occasions, if we intercut the frontal shots of two people as they are dialoguing with each other, amazingly, we could create a fictional timeline. Even with a little bit of knowledge about (how) the camera (works), people know that with the presence of the camera(s), it is not possible to show two people facing each other and talking [without disclosing the presence of the cameras]. So, the situation in which we see nothing other than two people facing each other and talking is where the fictional moving-image and experiences have been achieved. It is very important to depart from the interview, the primary technique of documentary, and to create something fictional through the camera position. That camera position has provided us with whatever we want. (Fujii et al. 2015, 171–72, emphasis mine)

The actual length of each interview is on average 2 to 3 hours. Both filmmakers would then work out a screenplay of sorts developed from the transcribed text of the interviews, based upon which they would rearrange and restructure the sequences through further editing work, mainly via techniques of classical narrative cinema such as shot/reverse shot and eyeline matching. As a result, a finalized interview is usually around 30 minutes (see Ito et al. 2016, 77–78). The creation of a “fictional timeline” is associated with continuity editing. I propose, instead of simply considering this a stylistic preference, that the “fictional timeline” could be examined in terms of the Rancièrian “distribution of the sensible.” In a different context explaining the politics of aesthetics, Rancière considers “fiction” as “a way of changing existing modes of sensory presentations and forms of enunciation; of varying frames, scales and rhythms; and of building new relationships between reality and appearance, the individual and the collective” (2010, 141). That is, fiction comprises the sphere of sensible distribution, the very site of aesthetic intervention.

Regarding the Trilogy, I do not think that the most important aspect concerns the contents of the testimonies per se, and to which extent they could be testified as factual and authentic. The “fictional timeline” helps to reframe the mode and context of storytelling and build up new relationships between the interviewees and the camera, and between the individual and  the collective. Hamaguchi once argued that for their interviewees, the time-space created by the interviews separates the latter from everyday life, so that they are also to some extent “performing” (to be) themselves in front of the camera, wherein the “fiction” is born. For both filmmakers, the interviewee’s “performance” enabled her or him to be temporarily liberated from their assigned role and identity as “survivor” or “victim” (Ito et al. 2016, 81–82). For the interviewee, it is through and throughout the process of remembrance/performance in front of the camera that the multiple tem- poralities of the self/selves emerge: as the interviewee tries to “associate this present self with the everyday of the (pre-3.11) past” in a gesture of remembering (Fujii et al. 2015, 173), she or he also needs to re-orient this self toward the prospect of revitalization and reconstruction, given that this self as an image presented to the camera is also being delivered to its future as a preserved document.

Interviewing, listening, talking

Hamaguchi and Sakai were fully aware of the fact that as outsiders who visited Tōhoku without knowing much about the area (since neither of them are originally from the region), while at the same time being overwhelmed by the post-disaster images and information about Fukushima and 3.11, their own position was rather “weak” (Sakai, quoted in Fujii et al. 2015, 175). The interview in Trilogy is always staged as an ongoing dialogue either between two people (sometimes one of the filmmakers), or within a group of interlocutors from the local area. In the setting of a collective, nevertheless, any one interviewee can become another’s intercessor, through initiating topics, exchanging ideas, posing questions, and recalling past events together.

Noticeably, on occasions that the filmmaker himself must join the conversation, he did not necessarily monopolize the right to lead the talk     or ask questions. In his interview with Shoji Yoshiyaki, a 60-year-old councilman of Ishinomaki city  for instance, Sakai is shown asking why     Mr Shoji would still want to continue living at his home in “a tsunami prone region” that may expect future disastrous happenings. Instead of offering a direct answer, Mr Shoji asked Sakai  about  his hometown and the natural disasters taking place at Sakai’s home village. Sakai was also given the chance to recall his own memories about a hometown located elsewhere, interlaced with Shoji’s narrative about the past, present, and the future of Ishinomaki.

The dynamics of double-becoming should be specifically examined in the light of the previously discussed “fictional timeline.” We can take the sequence featuring the couple from Higashi-Matsushima – husband Abe Jun and wife Abe Shimako as an example. Although a long shot preceding the interview shows that Hamaguchi was sitting by their side when the shooting was being set up, the over 30-minute-long sequence smoothly intercuts between medium close-up shots and over-the-shoulder shots of the Abes. In recalling how they struggled to escape from the tsunami and cope with its devastating effects, the husband and wife complement, confirm, and elicit each other’s accounts, or stories. As such, the process in which their memories of 3.11 are retold also demonstrates how narratives are reworked and edited “on the scene” and on the site (of the interview) via the couple’s collective storytelling.

Furthermore, it is necessary to emphasize how, because the Abes understood well that while they were facing and talking to each other, they were simultaneously facing the cameras and talking to an audience (the film- makers included), so in their narratives, the way in which they address each other constantly switches between the second person point of view, namely “you,” the free indirect style of the third-person, namely “my husband,” or “my wife,” and the first person plural “we.” In their dialogue, through playing the role of an intercessor for each other, the Abes were able to share thoughts and feelings that they had no previous chance to confide or confirm earlier on. More importantly, they are also given fresh eyes to re-examine what they had experienced together on “that day,” as if they were observing themselves retelling the stories from the point of view of a listener/spectator. So far as the continuity editing has rendered the interviews and talks smooth and comprehensible, I don’t think either Hamaguchi or Sakai had designed and envisioned their formal experimentation as a strategy to interpellate the audience as passive subjects. For example, shots wherein the interviewees confirm with the filmmakers that they are looking in the right direction (at the cameras) remind the viewers of the filming strategy in a self-reflexive manner. I want to emphasize that the “fictional timeline” has helped to realign the interconnections between the filmmakers, the interviewees, and the spectators. For instance, in one of the over-the-shoulder shots taken from the viewpoint of Mrs. Abe, a viewer sees her husband attentively describing how at the moment when the tsunami was only minutes away from their house, he spotted his wife on the veranda and managed to grab her in time to keep her safe. Here we see Mr. Abe reaching out his arm to his wife as if to act out this memory of rescue. An over-the-shoulder shot taken from behind the husband follows, wherein one sees his wife following his actions with her eyes, and responding warmly by suddenly pointing out, “You have a good, solid arm (…it made me feel safe).” The sequence then continues from the wife’s point-of-view shot directed towards the man, in which Mr. Abe is seen calmly continuing his story, without offering any direct response to the gentle compliments by his wife. The audience is invited to participate in the scenario of affectivity and encouraged to mobilize their own knowledge and imagination to make sense  of the bonding.

In these ways, storytelling configures a space of/for “collective enunciation” by not only recruiting multiple interlocutors/interviewees to participate, but also by generating and circulating their stories inter-textually and trans-medially. We can return to the sequence with the two old ladies as an example. The picture show that opens the film has in a striking way offered historical, vernacular references to 3.11, associating collective experiences about past calamities with those of the present. Tabata Yoshi’s accounts and her sister’s reflections and memories overlap and merge with the tale about Yocchan featured in her picture story show. Meanwhile, their talk of past events does not fixate upon 3.11 but jumps in between historical occurrences in 1896 and 1933. The interwoven strands of narration have challenged us to reconsider how the boundaries between the actual traumatic happenings, personal accounts and memories built upon them, as well as cultural re- presentations and imaginations inspired by them could become contingent and blurry.

The tale of this little girl, Yocchan, has relayed and reworked generations of knowledge and memories about earthquakes and tsunami. Evidencing the archival efforts on the local residents’ part to bear witness to and pass down their knowledge about historical catastrophes and happenings, the transmedia storytelling is highly reflexive of the practice of PFD filmmaking. As such, it is understandable that in Storytellers, the last instalment of the Trilogy, the filmmakers would follow an interviewer/listener to meet a group of folklore-tellers, to collect folk stories from them, and to document their storytelling (see Hamaguchi, Nohara, and Takahashi 2015, 35–36). Moreover, Hamaguchi explains that the Trilogy does not simply deal with post-3.11 Tōhoku. For him, it is a documentary series that was created and threaded together in order to listen to the “womb” that has given birth to the multiple “voices” of people whose lives are interwoven with “the histories of small or large, different communities and their interconnections” (Hamaguchi, Nohara,  and  Takahashi  2015, 31). It echoes Thouny’s call for a rethinking of 3.11, in shifting away from the “logic of containment” which tends to confine the problematics of Fukushima to a “us-them” logic and “self-contained spaces” (2017, 5).

Talking bodies

Finally, I want to switch the focus onto how Hamaguchi and Sakai emphasize the significance of body, in the Deleuzian sense, regarding the part it plays in remembering 3.11. Deleuze has considered how the body is defined by its affective capacity in relation to thought and image, and he suggests

Not that the body thinks, but, obstinate and stubborn, it forces us to think, and forces us to think what is concealed from thought, life… “Give me a body then” is first to mount the camera on an everyday body. The body is never in the present, it contains the before and the after, tiredness and waiting. Tiredness and waiting, even despair are the attitudes of the body. (1989, 189)

In their 21-episode online broadcast interestingly named “Katarogu” (Log of Talking, 2011–2013) hosted by Hamaguchi and Sakai,11 the filmmakers and their guests discussed their research on location when preparing for and filming the Trilogy, including what the bodies of their filming subjects set them to think. Both filmmakers talked about the affective flow, or the “bodily force” they sensed when their cameras were turning to the talking bodies of the “victims” or “survivors.” They described how they captured the moment when the filming subjects seemed to retreat to their memories and flashbacks, manifesting how the body “contains the before and the after.”12

To connect with Deleuzian thinking, I find Rodowick’s discussion useful regarding how “the body is a spatial sign of time that passes. It is never in the present because time passes: the body registers and accumulates its past experiences; it anticipates the future either reactively as repetition of the same, or affirmatively as the anticipation of new potentialities and transformative forces” (Rodowick 1997, 168). It is tempting to consider the Trilogy a documentation of the “talking bodies” – instead of considering “bodies” merely in terms of human bodies, I suggest that they are the assemblages of personal accounts, memories, and affects that could force us to think. Moreover, what has drawn my attention is how the survivor’s own body may constitute an archive – an archive of testimonies, memories, as well as of affect, the full expression of which is yet to be articulated and understood. On the one hand, as indicated above, the filmmakers have come to sense the bodily forces that were pulling them away from the filming subjects as something integral to grasping the ethical issues of documentary filmmaking, especially for 3.11 related projects (also see note 16). On the other hand, it is not surprising to learn that Hamaguchi and Sakai were impressed by what a folktale-teller from Tōhoku had told them, concerning how, even if the area were destroyed by the tsunami, the stories inside his body cannot be taken away.


In this chapter, with the heuristic of Post-Fukushima Documentary, I have highlighted how strands of independent documentary filmmaking have proffered critical insights into post-3.11 Japanese society. Specifically, I have demonstrated how Hamaguchi and Sakai’s intervention has contributed to disturb the officially-sponsored teleological, linear narrative about post-disaster recovery and reconstruction. Exploring how Hamaguchi and Sakai have modified the mode of expression in restructuring interviews with witnesses and survivors as well as with folktale-tellers at the Tōhoku area, we can see how they have made visible a people and a community experiencing the conditions of precarity at the level of everyday life on various fronts, and also within the multi-layered socio-political sphere where their roles seem to be predetermined and prescribed. The Trilogy filmmakers have demonstrated how the stories and tales (as  told  or acted out), gestures, and bodies are interconnected with each other in affective ways, so that the personal could connect with the collective, and vice versa. In breaking away from the given hierarchy of interviewer-interviewee, and the dichotomy of the personal and the political, the staged interview redistributes the identities of the subjects, filmmakers, and the spectators. The mechanisms of interview thus help to shake off the audience’s pre-established assumptions  about similarly themed documentary works, such as the NHK special, or even observational documentary works widely seen among the independent productions. Importantly, as the spectators engage with the performativity, contingency and affectivity of listening and telling, they are pressed to adjust and reframe their own interpretative framework, which opens up  possibilities  to not only remember, but to re-imagine a new collectivity that is to come. This, I believe, has constituted the very politics of the Tōhoku Documentary Trilogy.


This project would not be possible without the collective research project “3.11 Igo no diskuru/post-3.11 discours” (2016–2017) hosted by Prof. Mitsuyo Wada-Marciano at the International Research Centre for Japanese Studies (Nichibunken). I am deeply thankful to Jennifer Coates for organizing the international symposium on “Cinema and Social Change in Japan” at Kyoto University on 20–22 October 2017, and all the participants in this symposium. Special thanks go to Hamaguchi Ryūsuke, Sakai Kō, and Matsubayashi Yoju for their timely help providing me the screeners. I am also grateful for the doctoral student Pan Qin at Nagoya University, for her help in transcribing and editing some of the Japanese materials. A different version of this essay has been published as a chapter as “Kioku to shintai o norikoeru – Tōhoku dokyumentarī sanbusaku to Posuto Fukushima Dokyumentarī” (Going beyond memory and body – Tōhoku Documentary Trilogy and Post-Fukushima Documentary) in Posuto San Ichichi Media Gensetsu Saiko (Rethinking the Post 3.11 Media Discourse) 283–302. (Tokyo: Hosei daigaku shuppan kyoku, 2019).


  1. Although there are four films in the trilogy, “Voices from the Waves” is com- posed of two episodes respectively shot at Shinchimachi and Kasennuma. In line with the filmmakers’ use of “sanbusaku” namely “trilogy,” I also refer to the four films as a “trilogy.”
  2. My use of “on the scene” or “xianchang” aesthetics relates to the discussions of Chinese independent cinema. Film scholar Zhang Zhen associates xianchang (“on the scene” or “on the spot” in Chinese) with the ‘quasi documentary and hyper realist aesthetic’ that characterizes the Urban Generation Chinese in- dependent cinema, emphasizing how the xianchang aesthetics has been facilitated by the development of video technology, capturing “the contemporary spirit (dangxiaxing) of the Urban Generation in general and the ‘amateur cinema’ in particular” (Zhang 2007, 18–9). In his study of Chinese independent doc- umentaries, Luke Robinson has examined the theory of xianchang, which I shall turn to in the following.
  3. Though not further pursued in this chapter, it is necessary to point out how the NHK Archives project has shed light on the wide-ranging 3.11-centred archiving efforts orchestrated and practised by various institutions and organizations na- tionwide and outside of Japan, and their online and/or offline engagements. For archiving work on visual materials, one may turn to Sendai Mediatheque’s “Center for Remembering 3.11,” Google’s visual archive of “Mirai no kioku” (, and Yamagata International Documentary Film Festival’s “3.11 Documentary Film  Archive”  (, just to name a few.
  4. For instance, Mōri Yoshitaka suggests that given how  the  triple  disaster “had a great impact on artists’ mindsets about art, society and politics” there has been renewed  interest  among  individual  artists  and  artist  collectives in conveying social and political messages in a more explicit manner. Nevertheless, he also stresses that “The catastrophic East Japan Great Earthquake and the following Fukushima nuclear plant incidents in 2011 played a crucial role in shaping a dominant, pessimistic image of the future” (Mōri 2015, 167; 184).
  5. “Independent film” is used here as an analytical perspective. According to Mitsuyo Wada-Marciano, Japanese cinema since the 1990s can be approached in terms of a condition of “post-studio,” with independent filmmakers becoming the “major players” (2012, 14). It also echoes Aaron Gerow’s earlier view that into the twentieth-first century, the assumed differences and even contestations be- tween “major and independent, dominant and alternative” in Japanese cinema, when examined from the perspectives of “industry, style, and politics,” are getting more ambiguous and untenable (2002, 12).
  6. In its online English version, there are three categories used to classify the ar- chive, namely, “Immediately after the Earthquake,” “Testimonies of the Disaster,” and “Aerial Views of Disaster Area.” For more, refer to the official site,
  7. In 2013, Matsubayashi accomplished his second documentary feature shot at Fukushima, The Horse of Fukushima (Matsuri no uma), by shifting attention to the horses that experienced and suffered from the disaster at Minami-Soma’s “disaster zone.”
  8. One may also refer to the documentary feature 3.11, in which Matsubayashi also participated and co-directed with Mori Tatsuya, Watai Takeharu, and Yasuoka Takaharu; all four filmmakers rushed to Fukushima two weeks after the earth- quake occurred. For more refer to the film’s official site at eng.html.
  9. The Sanriku Coast is the coastal region on the Pacific Ocean, which extends from Southern Aomori prefecture to Iwate prefecture, and northern Miyagi prefecture; historically this area suffered several major earthquakes and tsunami.
  10. The English text related to the documentaries is transcribed from the English subtitled version of the Tōhoku Documentary Trilogy.
  11. Organized/hosted by Sendai Mediatheque, Hamaguchi and Sakai had been video-podcasting an online programme titled “Katarogu” (which refers  to  a “log” of “talks” as  in  Japanese  the  word  for  “talk,”  “kataru”)  that  consists  of altogether 21 episodes recorded between 2013 and 2014. In their talks, Hamaguchi and Sakai, together with Sendai Mediatheque, recorded and mapped out the production progress and process of the Trilogy. They also invited guest speakers from diverse backgrounds to participate their talks. The full programme is currently available at their YouTube channel: channel/UCk5yCddl1t_7Jh3yUIzUHRg and some of my discussions are in- spired by and quote from their Katarogu talks.
  12. In the first episode of their Katarogu talks titled “What is the Project of the Sound of Waves?” (namino oto purojekuto to wa), Hamaguchi mentioned, “How shall I put this … there were moments when I was considering whether I should capture certain things in my film or not … like when someone was talking to me, suddenly this person would … probably it should not be called a flashback since I’m not sure whether I could go this far to label this situation as such … am not sure whether it was because there is something having entered this person’s body, or, probably this person’s body was rejecting anything, there would be this moment when the act of ‘karari’ (talking) did not go well, or maybe this is a somewhat inappropriate moment. I guess if you don’t get close to each other, you won’t witness such moments” (Katarogu (Log of Talks), 2014).


作者: Jennifer Coates / Eyal Ben Ari
出版社: Routledge
副标题: Politicizing the Screen
出版年: 2021-8-13
页数: 256

This book uncovers and explains the ways by which politics is naturalized and denaturalized, and familiarized and de-familiarized through popular media. It explores the tensions between state actors such as censors, politicized and non-politicized audiences, and visual media creators, at various points in the history of Japanese visual media. It offers new research on a wide array of visual media texts including classical narrative cinema, television, documentary film, manga, and animated film. It spans the militarized decades of the 1930s and 1940s, through the Asia Pacific War into the present day, and demonstrates how processes of politicization and depoliticization should be understood as part of wider historical developments including Japans postwar devastation and poverty, subsequent rapid modernization and urbanization, and the aging population and economic struggles of the twenty-first century





二玮瑞典日常 8.24-8.30




学研小组&观影会 | 穿越三万年的梦与激情——赫尔佐格纪录片三部曲


二玮瑞典日常 8.17-8.23








学研小组&观影会 | 穿越三万年的梦与激情——赫尔佐格纪录片三部曲




《文明》BBC 1969年系列纪录片中英字幕 05


《文明》BBC 1969年系列纪录片中英字幕 04


《文明》BBC 1969年系列纪录片中英字幕 03