Shown at this year’s Berlinale film festival, Kaze no denwa by director Nobuhiro Suwa tells about Haru, a 17 years old girl who searches for a way back to life after her family has died in a tsunami caused by the big Tohoku earthquake.
In 2010, Itaru Sasaki established a so called kaze no denwa, which means wind phone, in his private garden in Otsuchi on the Japanese east coast. Some might describe it as a heart warming art installation, for him the booth and its old fashioned telephone were an important tool to deal with the loss of a beloved person.
The following year, ten percent of Otsuchi’s population died when the town was hit by tsunami waves after the big Tohoku earthquake. From one day to another countless people were in mourning, so Sasaki opened his garden to the public. His kaze no denwa enabled everyone to talk to their deceased relatives or friends and to say goodbye, which was especially important for those whose loved ones were lost in the sea forever.
That was when fictional Haru’s mother, father and brother had also disappeared in the waves and the girl had to leave Otsuchi to live with her aunt in Hiroshima’s unpleasant countryside. Nobuhiro Suwa’s movie Kaze no denwa tells the story of the now 17 years old girl, who tries to overcome either the pain – or life.
It’s a slow movie with a merciless camera, showing us a dreary Japan that has not much to do with stereotypical aesthetics such as minimalistic architecture, beautiful designs and patterns or admirable traditions, and sometimes focusing more on Haru’s expression than on what she perceives. Actress Serena Motola is a great choice, as she manages very well to embody deep sadness, and her appearance is a bit unusual thanks to the freckles on her face.
We get to know Haru as an introverted girl who hardly speaks and does not even engage in simple everyday conversation rituals like saying ittekimasu when leaving the house while the aunt waves her goodbye with itterashai. (When you return you say tadaima! and the person at home welcomes you with okaeri!)
Everything becomes even worse, when Haru’s aunt ends up sick and unconscious in a hospital. Left alone and in despair, the girl walks into a rural area which is closed off due to landslide risk, yells at the wind, cries for her family and falls apart, then lying in the dirt like a dead person.
From Hiroshima to Otsuchi
Haru’s journey begins the moment a worker drives by and takes her home, where he lives with his senile mother. He offers Haru some food, speaks about the suicide of his sister and even the old mother has a personal story to tell that includes a death by the atomic bomb. “Those who are alive must eat”, says the worker more than once, encouraging Haru not only to have a snack but also to stay alive. From now on, loss and food will be the central themes of Haru’s encounters. Even though she promises to go straight back home to her aunt’s apartment, the girl takes a different path and starts hitchhiking to Otsuchi.
The film succeeds wonderfully in conveying the huge dimension and still incomprehensible nature of the big Tohoku earthquake by showing different variations of its consequences and its impact not only on those who were directly affected. Besides, each of Haru’s encounters is a miniature, teaching her and us that loss and pain can come in many ways and that people have different coping mechanisms.
One important person she meets is Morio from Fukushima, who has lost his wife and child in the tsunami. He now lives in his car, and although he still has a physical home as his house was not destroyed, he has lost the place where he belongs to, just like Haru. When she looks out of the car window, watching busy city people passing by, she asks him, why the others behave as if nothing would’ve happened.
After she arrives in Otsuchi, Haru visits the place where she once lived with her family. There’s nothing left but the foundations. Nevertheless she steps into every room, trying to connect via a possibly long abandoned everyday ritual, saying tadaima! – I’m back home! – many many times, crying out loud, desperately condemning her mother, father and brother for not answering with okaeri until she sinks to the ground. Not really a satisfactory closure, but what else is there left to do? Then, while waiting for the train back home, she meets a boy of her age, who introduces her to the nearby kaze no denwa and Haru switches plans again.
Trying to understand
In 2011, I was working for a newspaper, and every day, our team created an ongoing information stream about what was happening. I also remember the monitors at my sports studio, showing endless news with footage of terrified people in shaking buildings or a bird’s eye view of the nuclear power plant while I was running on the treadmill. Half a year later I went to Japan for the first time where I listened to the stories of my hosts who volunteered in the destroyed areas, and looked at their pictures of wrecked ships lying around in between collapsed buildings. I remember many electricity saving signs and after I encountered my first Japanese earthquake I had panic attacks whenever the street became shaky because a truck passed by.
As someone who grew up in a region with few natural disasters so far, it’s hard to fully understand the events of 2011 and its effects. Not to mention the political dimension of the government’s reaction to the accident in the power plant. Discussion panels by Japanese people living in Berlin and documentaries such as Nuclear Nation gave me a better understanding, but until now, I hadn’t watched a Japanese feature film about the topic and I’m very taken with Nobuhiro Suwa’s slow and intense approach, focussing on landscape and people, and broadening the subject in order to build an emotional bridge for those who might have difficulties to relate. Although Kaze no denwa is a sad movie, it never gets cheesy or glossy – which brings it even closer to reality.
Maybe you can still get a ticket for one of the last Berlinale screenings this Thursday and Sunday. If not, you might want to watch the NHK documentary The phone of the wind from 2017, which is fully available on YouTube:
Article picture © 2020 The Phone of the Wind Film Partners. Thank you <3