Ōmiya, Kōichi [大宮浩一]. 2011. Mujō Sobyō. 無常素描 [The Sketch of Mujō]. Tokyo: TOFOO Films. HD documentary film, 75 min., http://mujosobyo.jp/

Ōmiya Koichi’s The Sketch of Mujō [Mujō Sobyō] is the first documentary film to take a ground-level view of life in Iwate prefecture following the 3/11 disaster. Ōmiya combines different types of “sketches”: short interviews with those who survived the disaster and astonishing views of the devastated landscapes of Miyako City, a farming and fishing community that bore the brunt of the tsunami. The film brings voices and images together with a meditation on the medieval concept of mujō — the transience of all things. A longstanding theme in Japanese art and letters, the classical expressions of mujō appear in the opening passages of The Ten Foot Square Hut [Hōjōki] and The Tale of the Heike [Heike monogatari]. Ōmiya’s film explores both the reality of the disaster, and the notion of mujō as a term of reconciliation.

The film is narrated by farmers and fishermen, retirees, and doctors. There is neither a voice over, nor any overt directorial presence in this film. Fishermen speak of their boats destroyed or swept away, the poisoning of the sea with industrial pollution unlocked by the disaster, and above all, their concerns about the future. Uncertainty and a sense of shock weigh heavily in every interview. One woman recounts that after the tsunami there was no television, but that once power was eventually restored and they could see televised images again, they suddenly felt more vulnerable; she must come to terms with being a survivor even though she feels as though she is not allowed to live her life. The interviewee resolves to be strong, and to live for her friends who did not survive.

Ōmiya devotes a considerable amount of time to simply looking at the effects of the disaster. A series of long tracking shots from moving vehicles and boats take in the sheer expanse of the devastation, gradually transforming our sense of its limits. Boats, ships, cars and trucks lay inert, their metal skins crushed. Immense cement breakwaters have been toppled like toy blocks. Rescue teams comb the debris, and cranes slowly chip at destroyed buildings, like insects laboring over a vast pavement of destruction. In these scenes, Ōmiya refuses the facile optimism of green shoots, of a lyrical return of nature and its creatures. Instead, we are shown mountains of debris, obliterated landscapes, and through these combined views a sense of overwhelming scale becomes more concrete. Tracking shots grant us time to reflect, to begin to organize our thoughts about what we are seeing.

While the views of landscape are sustained, the interviews with people are uniformly brief. There is a sense of cordial anonymity. Ōmiya’s interlocutors are never introduced as characters in a “story” of this tragedy. They are not given the permanence of proper names, but this distance is also his way of protecting them, of gently listening as they find the words to express their experiences. Viewers thus gain a broader sense of the people of Iwate, of their concerns about their families, their métiers, and their shared future. A monk observes that the economic prosperity of postwar Japan was never really shared by Tōhoku. It has always been a place where people struggled with the fortunes of nature. Now, the people of Tōhoku are praised everywhere for their strength and resolve — values that are being forgotten elsewhere in Japan, gradually eroded by waves of technological progress and economic prosperity. He submits that these values need to be preserved, and learned anew by others.

In this respect, the film’s title is slightly deceptive, for Ōmiya does not simply propose that we make sense of the disaster by recourse to the Buddhist doctrine of impermanence. Rather, he foregrounds his own sense of urgency, his haste to capture and quickly communicate the experience and image of disaster before it becomes lost. This prompts us to ask: what threatens our understanding and future recollection of this catastrophe? How can we come to terms with disaster, but without forgetting its fundamental experience of fear? As an exploration of this dilemma, The Sketch of Mujō sides with the work of memory more than the acceptance of transience.

— M. Downing Roberts

This film is distributed by http://tongpoo-films.jp/


Foreign screenings:
Region: Paris, France
Date & Time: 15th Oct. am10:30~
Place: La Pagode

Region: New York, USA
Event: Dialogue of Cultures International Film Festival
Date & Time: 20th ~ 23rd Oct.
“The Sketch of Mujo” will be the closing event on the 23rd.
Place: School of Visual Arts

FILM: The Sketch of Mujō (2011)
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