Film Review - 'Sketch of Mujo'

Posted by Alexander Hay

Filmed soon after this year's Japanese earthquakes, Koichi Omiya's documentary captures the aftermath with stark, unyielding clarity and an uncompromising insight into the human cost of the disaster

遺跡の間で It has been little more than eight months since the major earthquake and subsequent tsunami that devastated the east coast of Japan.

What stood out about the disaster was how media coverage of it reached saturation point, with much of the devastation and most dreadful scenes reported on, filmed and disseminated by media both from within Japan itself and around the world.

It became a Web 2.0 disaster in many ways, and one which demonstrated both the ease of witnessing such horror in our times, and the means of everyone becoming those witnesses.

What was less reported on, however, was the aftermath. Certainly, to begin with, there was a lot of coverage involving the damage left afterwards, of coastal towns, villages and even cities nigh-on destroyed, but this quickly faded from view, overshadowed by the other legacy of the earthquake, the Fukushima nuclear crisis. The rest of ravaged Japan was quickly forgotten.

So Koichi Omiya's 'Sketch of Mujo', a documentary released in Japan only three months after the disaster, is timely in that it not only draws attention to the damage wrought, but lingers on it even as others have forgotten. Here we see modern lives in an advanced economy reduced to huge piles of formless rubbish, and barren lunar landscapes stripped of ownership and identity, ruined shells of houses and stunned owners staring blankly at the ruin brought upon them, barely able to cry or even express the tragedy that has befallen them.

In the midst of this, the ancient and untouched Japanese landscape of forests and hills loom in the background and around the ruins, representing an indifferent and unyielding Nature as we ponder scenes of sunken fishing boats, wrecked cars, huge steel ships rammed onto dry land and smashed seawalls bearing witness to the hopelessness of holding off the tsunami.

Much has been made of the stoicism and resilience of the Japanese caught up in the tsunami. The film certainly captures this, but puts it into context, revealing people who are trying their best to endure, but lacking the means and vocabulary to express any other response. The impression is not of resilience but simply trying to put a brave yet stunned face on it, only for the façade to sometimes falter, and an intense look of loss and heartbreak to take over.

'Mujo' means 'impermanence', a reference to the fleeting nature of things. This view is articulated by a local Buddhist priest, who provides an unreliable narration at points in the film, arguing that old values have sustained the locals through their being too poor (relatively) and marginalised to be 'corrupted' by Metropolitan Japan's 'decadence'. It is a wrong-headed argument, as is his claim that the towns and cities shouldn't be rebuilt to be entirely disaster proof so future inhabitants will remember the need for fear.

This is a rather misanthropic and inhuman argument. It is also one that is utterly wrong. There is no nobility in suffering, no wisdom to be gained through deprivation. There is only pain and an unanswerable absence. The wounded humanity of the survivors tells a very different story from that of the priest, perversely trying to seek a moral lesson in the midst of meaningless destruction. Sometimes there isn't a moral. Sometimes there is just loss.

'Sketch of Mujo' makes this point, by accident or design, through the simple act of observing. There are many long, lingering shots of the shattered landscape and lives, without comment or attempt to varnish the truth. Sometimes, it should be said, the film's pace sags and the long scenes can be unbearable. And yet it contains one stark truth, that in the face of such events, the point is that there are often no words. We can only bear witness, which 'Sketch of Mujo' does commendably.

Sketch of Mujo will be shown as part of the Premiere Japan 2011 festival at the Barbican, on the 26th of November at 16.00. Tickets can be booked HERE.


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Alexander Hay

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