Japan: Children Of The Tsunami


Reviewed by: Val Kermode

Japan: Children Of The Tsunami
"The children tell us in their words and in their silence all we need to know."

“It was how you'd imagine a big monster to be” says a girl of the tsunami which killed seventy-four children from her school.

This compelling film uses testimony from 7 to 10 year-old survivors of last year's Japanese tsunami and the Fukushima nuclear accident to show how their lives have been changed forever.

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Opening with images of a calm sea, but music which adds to the sense of foreboding, we hear the children first in voiceover, talking about the enormity of what happened on the day of the earthquake. Pictures of their school in ruins are intercut with pictures from happier times, the children laughing in the playground. Then they begin to speak directly to camera. Rikku, a big child with a big personality, the sort who is always there at the front with his hand up, explains importantly what a tsunami actually is, repeating what his dad has told him. He has a lot of information, but it is the more thoughtful and imaginative children who are the most affecting.

A girl remembers it was her friend Mannu's birthday that day. When they knew the tsunami was approaching, she told her friend, “I won't be able to give you your present today”. Then she says she never saw her again. There's a poignant photo of children waiting on a hillside for their parents to find them.

Later we see footage of a meeting in which angry parents question the sole surviving teacher about why he didn't act more quickly in evacuating the children. Some adults speak of their experience, including the mother of a girl still missing from the school. Her remains are later found by a fisherman, but the mother goes on driving a digger, looking for the four children still missing.

But it is the children's words which tell us the most. None of them cry, though we cannot know how much was edited. They appear to have composed themselves for the camera. The age of the children is important. They are old enough to understand what is expected of them, but still young enough to speak very openly and to acknowledge that there are other feelings they can't discuss.

Typically, one boy says, “We don't talk to friends about the radiation. We talk about play, but not about radiation.” Then his face slips slightly as he adds “It might cause another earthquake.”

In some ways the children from the Fukushima exclusion zone are even sadder, as no one can tell them when, if ever, they will be able to return home. Living in emergency housing, some rebel against the cramped conditions, but one says “It feels like home now. We just have to accept it.”

These children can't play out, or have to play on tarmac. Grass, water, trees are dangerous because they harbour more radiation. Tap water is forbidden. Some parts of houses are unsafe. They talk about this in a matter of fact way. One girl says of the radiation monitor which she has to wear “I suppose only children in Fukushima get these glass badges,” as if they were medals.

It is often the details which are important to children. The glass badges are scratchy and you don't want to wear them under your vest for PE. A shop in the exclusion zone sold “lovely sweets that you could dip in milk”. Innocent reminiscences, but also an awareness of the future. One girl asks her mother if she will be able to have babies. Most of the children want jobs where they can help people. One wants to be a radiation researcher, another wants a job where he can save people “because people saved us”.

The filmmaker has wisely chosen not to fill in more of the background. There can be no one who has forgotten those images of the black, all-consuming wave, shown here only briefly. The film feels just the right length. The children tell us in their words and in their silence all we need to know. There is no overt reference to politics, but near the end of the film we see a politician who has come to campaign just outside the exclusion zone. He gets out of his car, but he stays on the tarmac.

Reviewed on: 13 Jun 2012
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Compelling testimony from seven to 10-year-old survivors, reveals how last year’s Japanese tsunami and the Fukushima nuclear accident have changed children's lives forever.

Director: Dan Reed

Year: 2012

Runtime: 60 minutes

Country: UK, China, Denmark, Canada, Netherlands


Doc/Fest 2012

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