Berlin Hidden Gem: 'Voices in the Wind' Depicts a Sense of Connection in Japan

Berlin International Film Festival
More than 30,000 people have used the phone booth in Otsuchi to "talk" to deceased loved ones.

Nobuhiro Suwa’s film is based on a real non-functioning phone in the coastal town of Otsuchi that allows people to "call" deceased loves and find closure.

There is a white telephone booth with a rotary phone connected to nowhere that sits atop a hill overlooking the town of Otsuchi on Japan’s northeast coast. More than 30,000 people have used it to "speak” to deceased loved ones. Itaru Sasaki, a sprightly local surfer in his 60s, built the Kaze no Denwa (literally phone of the wind) in 2010 as a way of connecting with his cousin who had recently died. The following year, a magnitude-nine earthquake triggered a tsunami that devastated Otsuchi, killing around 1,400 people, about 10 percent of its population. Sasaki opened his phone box to the survivors of the disaster, which claimed more than 18,000 lives in total. The booth inspired maverick director Nobuhiro Suwa to make Kaze no Denwa (Voices in the Wind), his first film in Japan in 18 years.

The story follows Haru (Serena Motola), a 17-year-old who hitchhikes the 850 miles from Hiroshima back to Otsuchi eight years after the tsunami wiped out her family.

Hiroshima was one of the areas hit worst by deadly torrential rains that pummeled the west of Japan in 2018, causing more than 1,200 landslides in the prefecture. Hiroshima-born Suwa filmed some of the opening scenes among the destruction, which was reminiscent of the 2011 disaster. Walking amid the rubble is one of the triggers for Haru to head for her hometown in search of some kind of closure. 

As with nearly all the dialogue in Suwa’s films since his feature debut 2/Duo in 1997, the interactions between the characters are improvised. "It’s not natural for people to talk back and forth with memorized lines," says Suwa.

Despite the demands of working without a script and "a very small budget," the cast features some of Japanese cinema’s finest, including Tomokazu Miura and Toshiyuki Nishida, following French legend Jean-Pierre Léaud playing the lead in his last film, The Lion Sleeps Tonight. Before his latest work, Suwa had made films in France since 2000 “because of the French funding system, which supports directors.”

Although back on home turf, Suwa had never been to Japan’s northeast until he shot Kaze no Denwa.

"A lot of people around me went after the disaster to film or photograph the destruction and some used it for movies, but I decided not to go. I don’t think it was wrong to go, but I wondered whether it had meaning," he explains. "Going there eight years later, you can’t see much of the damage, it has been rebuilt. But people’s feelings have not been fixed. Because you can’t see that on the surface, it is even more important that it is portrayed."

This story first appeared in The Hollywood Reporter's Feb. 21 daily issue at the Berlin Film Festival.