MINAMI-SANRIKU, Miyagi Prefecture–A filmmaker who started documenting a fishing community in this town, three years before it was swept away by the tsunami on March 11, 2011, will soon release his work at mini theaters across the country.
“The People Living in Hadenya–Part One” was directed by Kazuki Agatsuma, who survived the Great East Japan Earthquake and tsunami.
The 28-year-old was a researcher in folklore studies at Tohoku Gakuin University in Sendai, Miyagi Prefecture, when he first encountered the Hadenya district of Minami-Sanriku in 2005. He became interested in the tight-knit community, which revolves around a traditional mutual assistance framework, known as “keiyakuko,” found throughout the Tohoku region.
In February 2008, Agatsuma commenced filming in Hadenya, where mountains stretch almost to the coast. At the time, most of the 80 households in the community made their livelihoods from oyster, ascidian, and seaweed farming.
The film shows how keiyakuko dictates the lifestyles of the residents.
In the film, parents openly discuss the pros and cons of letting their children leave the community after they come of age, and the impact such an exodus might have on the survival of the keiyakuko culture.
Keiyakuko was traditionally started among families who had lived in the area for generations. But emerging households embarked on aquafarming from the 1970s onward, and they quickly gained economic clout. As a result, the surface of the ocean soon became covered with aquafarming racks, and the quality of seaweed began to decrease.
The film conveys the reality of Hadenya through various images of daily life such as a fisherman and his wife preparing for oyster farming and a traditional event called “oshishisama,” in which an exorcist lion dancer visits each household in March.
Agatsuma said there were times, however, when he struggled to get people to speak their minds, and filming did not go as planned. But the residents encouraged him to finish shooting. “You should make a film that makes people cry,” he said one of the people in the community told him.
On March 11, 2011, Agatsuma was heading to Hadenya to set the date for a movie preview with the local people who cooperated in the production. As the tsunami hit, he abandoned his vehicle and film equipment and sprinted up the mountain to safety.
The next morning, he managed to reach the community, only to find that everything had been swept away by the tsunami. Among the dead were fishermen and junior high school students with whom he had become close through interviews. Agatsuma joined efforts to help remove the enormous amount of debris and pump out the water from the community.
Four days after the disaster, Agatsuma returned to his hometown Shiroishi in the prefecture. In the wake of the catastrophe, he ruminated over the significance of depicting the pre-earthquake lifestyle of the Hadenya residents, whose houses were swept away by the ocean.
His first cut of the film turned out to be an epic six hours, while the second was trimmed to 56 minutes. But neither version satisfied the filmmaker. In the end, he settled on a final cut that runs 134 minutes.
Although the film shows some scenes of debris scattered throughout the community, Agatsuma said he decided not to dwell on the disaster because he was aiming to convey a different message.
“With this film I set out to tell a universal truth that no matter what happens, life goes on,” he said.