On March 11, 2011, a massive undersea earthquake shook the east coast of Japan, causing tsunami that overwhelmed coastal barriers and decimated the countryside. It was the most powerful earthquake in Japan’s recorded history. In Iwate prefecture the tsunami peaked at more than 40 metres in height, sweeping away entire towns and crashing kilometres inland. Nationally the official death toll stands at almost 16,000. Almost 122,000 buildings were destroyed along the coast, with another 281,000 partially destroyed and 727,000 damaged. Down the coast from Iwate, the tsunami triggered meltdowns in three nuclear reactors at a Fukushima power plant. Once the nation-wide incident was complete, and the damage fully assessed, the World Bank estimated the cost at more than US$235 billion.
The 2011 Tohoku Earthquake, as it is generally known, was the single-most catastrophic event to strike Japan since the end of the Pacific War. Just as the atomic bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki had a profound impact on Japanese film and popular culture, so too have the events of 11 March rippled through the cinemas over the past seven years. It is visible in Sion Sono’s twin responses Himizu (2011) and Land of Hope (2012), while the government’s muddled response in the aftermath is famously satirised in Hideaki Anno’s Shin Godzilla (2016). There have been several dozen documentaries are varying quality released, each with its own specific focus on the disaster and its aftermath.
Adding to the growing list of documentary responses is Traces of Breath, a feature length documentary by Haruka Komori. Shot in the Iwate town of Rikuzentaka, it closely follows local resident Teiichi Sato as he goes about his business as a seed seller. His original store Sato Seeds was swept away by the tsunami – as was almost the entire town – but he has rebuilt his home and shop and returned to his day-to-day life. He has also written a short written account of the events of March 11, somewhat perversely in English, and sells self-published copies of it from his store counter.
Sato visibly likes the attention that Komori’s roving camera pays him. For much of the film he is in an obvious performative mode, amiably educating Komori on his business, the local community, the recovery efforts, and the people who perished. At first it seems a rather grating affect, as the middle-aged seed seller seems set of constantly impressing his director with his wit and knowledge. Komori shot the documentary over several years, and the compression effect that causes does seem to exaggerate Sato’s personality to some degree.
The simple subject matter and direct focus upon him does make Trace of Breath overstay its welcome from time to time, particularly since it lacks any firm sense of a narrative structure. Then it will unexpectedly resonate with remarkable strength and feel deeply melancholic. There is a trauma to Sato; an emotional wound that, as the years pass, struggles to properly heal. In one scene he shows the camera a mud-encrusted children’s toy that he has hung up near the back of his seed garden. He explains that he found it in the dirt and then, quite casually, notes that its owner is likely dead. Then he pauses for a moment – just long enough for the tragedy to become clear. There are a lot of similar moments in Trace of Breath, tiny emotive wounds that remain barely hidden beneath a veneer of everyday business.
Later in the film Sato relates some of the local history of the region, including past tsunami that have affected and almost destroyed the population. Each generation’s records are lost by their successors’ own tsunami and earthquake. It makes Sato’s personal attempt to record the history all the more resonant – and more tragic.
The documentary’s production values are simple, with it almost working as a one-woman production. While there is tremendous merit to be found it fits and starts, it ultimately feels a little too much of a chore to dig it out. At 93 minutes with effectively one person on screen the whole time, it remains over-long and unnecessary slow. Haruka Komori has a demonstrable insight into human behaviour, and this debut feature marks her as a documentary filmmaker worth observing. With luck, her future films will strike a better pace, and find a more varied focus.