trace of breath

26Mar17

Komori Haruka’s documentary, Trace of Breath (息の跡) tells the story of Sato Teiichi, a survivor of the 2011 tsunami who has returned to the city of Rikuzentakata to reestablish the seed shop that he used to run there. In addition to selling seeds, however, Sato-san has also written an account of his experience of the earthquake and tsunami in English, and he is working on versions in Chinese, Polish, and other languages. It’s a quiet movie that cycles through the four seasons as it follows Sato-san’s daily activities. He talks about seeds and growth, and his hope that his own shop will act as a seed to restore life to an area flattened by the powerful encroachment of the tsunami.

One of the most interesting aspects of the film is its almost complete lack of editorialization. Komori has chosen to let the seed salesman speak for himself, and to let the social interactions that take place during his daily rounds tell the story of not only what has been lost, but also of the strength that community offers to those who have chosen to continue living in Rikuzentakata; there are also glimpses of something else at work as well — perhaps some pure force of will to live, like a green pulse, that pushes the residents forward. The denuded landscape of Rikuzentakata also speaks for itself and the movie contrasts the lived-in particularity of the seed shop with the vacant tracts of land around it. These tracts are being written over by the concrete grid of new construction that will become the infrastructural backbone of the rebuilt area. Because the construction is unfinished and the city still has few inhabitants, the new construction stands in sharp contrast with the seed shop, and you can literally see the architectural temporalities of the city butting up against each other: the seed shop is a trace of the city as it was before while the outline of the city that will come into being around it is just now starting to take it’s shape. The denuded areas that have not yet disappeared under the growth of new inhabitation stand as a kind of in-between temporality, the zero time between then and now.

Nowhere is the sense of a past insisting itself into the empty tsunami-zones of the present more evident than in the scenes in the film that feature the city’s annual traditional festivals. These festivals feature lantern-decked rolling floats peopled with young musicians who play songs as the parade rolls through the city. But though the festival participants seem joyous, laughing and singing, it’s impossible to escape the fact that the parade is traveling through an empty landscape, one that would formerly have been peopled with houses and businesses. Local Japanese festivals are community events and the meaning of the festival resides as much in the connections between individuals that are formed through the process of this shared communal experience as it does in the ritual reproduction of the songs, dances, costumes, and regalia that constitute the most immediate face of the matsuri. This is a festival that is both taking place within the context of a community that no longer exists, and a festival that is at the same time planting the seeds for a future community that has yet to fully coalesce.

The film has been expertly edited by co-producer Hata Takeshi, who has the sense to respect the slow pace of moments unpacking themselves over time. From the outset, the film keeps quiet about the reasons that Sato-san has decided to write about his experience of the tsunami in English. However, as the film closes, Sato-san states that he can only write about these experiences in English, which he does not have a strong grasp of, because to write about them in Japanese would be too painful for him. The intensity of the trauma has created a muteness in his own language.

In one of the last lines of the film Sato states that he has resurrected his seed shop because he is driven by the spirits of the dead, the souls of those who did not survive the tsunami. It is the power he gets from them, he says, that has allowed him the strength to reopen his shop and has given him the ability to write out his account of the disaster in multiple languages.

In addition to an insightful interview with director Komori Haruka, Richard Lloyd Parry’s essential and heartbreaking London Review of Books essay, The Ghosts of the Tsunami, is a must read.

Trace of Breath plays at Osaka’s Seventh Art Theater (第七藝術劇場) in Juso until March 31st.

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