Japan in a Day: Tokyo Review

Japan in a Day - Film Still - H 2012
A life-affirming case of communal filmmaking.

Using crowd-sourced clips, Ridley Scott teams with Fuji TV for a poignant doc that screened on opening night of the festival.

TOKYO -- A nation’s fighting spirit pushes through the fitfully poignant, sometimes playful and occasionally humdrum collage of crowd-sourced clips that make up Japan in a Day, which jointly opened the Tokyo International Film Festival.

Following on the successful 2011 YouTube film Life in a Day, Ridley Scott’s Scott Free Productions this time joins forces with Fuji Television to create a documentary snapshot of Japan on March 11, 2012, one year after the earthquake, tsunami and resulting nuclear crisis that rocked the country.

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More than 8,000 people submitted snippets of their lives on the first anniversary of the life-changing event, and co-directors Philip Martin and Fuji TV’s Gaku Narita, along with editor Kristina Hetherington, work hard to find a rhythm in the 300 hours of footage they’ve winnowed down into a feature-length doc encapsulating the day.

Unlike its continent-straddling predecessor, the Japan-U.K. co-production benefits from being more focused and hinging on a date which has significance rather than one chosen at random. The inevitably uneven quality of the raw home footage aside, this is a life-affirming, surprisingly non-syrupy film that will no doubt prove cathartic to Japanese audiences upon its Nov. 3 theatrical release.  

Set to a unifying but emotionally insistent score by British Indian composer Nitin Sawhney, the sensitively edited mosaic of clips opens routinely enough at the break of dawn with images of sleep-crumpled faces, beeping iPhone alarms and teeth-cleaning rituals.

There’s a sense we are seated on one of Japan’s bullet trains as it speeds through the countryside, giving us blurred glimpses of marathon runners, downhill skiers, sparrows being fed and high-spirited teenagers goofing around on city streets.

But stick with it: There’s a raw honesty that emerges from the accumulation of these titbits and a handful of characters come into focus, as does the seismic event that unites them.

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A Buddhist monk chants sutra in a temple, an apology from humanity to nature. An elderly couple pick through the reduced-to-rubble house of the woman’s missing best friend, while another man notes that spring’s cherry blossoms are still beautiful.

Politics is present, most directly in the scenes of protest against the presence of nuclear reactors, but it’s not all serious: a husband and wife pledge their love to one another by writing in ketchup on their breakfast rice omelettes.

There are, naturally, lots of children and the film sometimes swerves into cloyingly cutesy kids-say-the-darnedest-things territory.

But the knowledge of what they’ve endured proves a challenge to cynicism. A little girl named Sakura was born just an hour before the quake hit and we watch as she celebrates her first birthday with an earthquake drill in the local town hall. Life has changed, says a young man whose mother, father, wife and daughter were swept away in their car by the tsunami, but life goes on.

Venue: Tokyo International Film Festival (special opening film)
Production company: Scott Free Productions
Directors: Philip Martin, Gaku Narita
Producer: Liza Marshall
Co-producer: Jack Arbuthnott
Executive producers: Ridley Scott, Chihiro Kameyama
Co-executive producer: Takayuki Hayakawa
Music: Nitin Sawhney
Editor: Kristina Hetherington
Sales: Gaga Corporation
No rating, 92 minutes