Voices in the Wind (Japan, 2020) [JAPAN CUTS 2020]

Following the Great East Japan Earthquake and Tsunami of 2011, filmmakers have sought to record the extent of the destruction or bring about some measure of catharsis through both narrative features and documentaries. Commendable narrative ruminations include Sion Sono’s Himizu (2011) and The Land of Hope (2012), but it is arguably documentaries such as Toshi Fujiwara’s No Man’s Zone (2011), Lucy Walker’s The Tsunami and the Cherry Blossom (2012) and Kyoko Miyake’s Surviving the Tsunami – My Atomic Aunt (2013) that have best managed to convey the irrevocable rupture caused by this natural disaster. Nobuhiro Suwa’s contemplative drama Voices in the Wind may be entirely fictive in construction, yet is imbued with a documentary sensibility as exemplified by the director’s use of long takes and scenes of prolonged silences or semi-improvised dialogue. In doing so, he achieves a dreamlike realism that incorporates a host of poignant experiences.

Having lost her family in the tsunami, high school student Haru (Serena Motola) has relocated from Otsuchi in Iwate Prefecture to Kure in Hiroshima Prefecture where she lives with her aunt Hiroko (Makiko Watanabe). Establishing scenes of eating breakfast and taking the water bus to school suggest Haru has picked up her life as best as she can but the drawn out manner in which these daily occurrences are depicted suggests a life that has been suspended. Barely repressed sorrow comes to the surface when Haru returns home to find Hiroko has collapsed. With her aunt recovering in the hospital, Haru resolves to hitchhike the 850 miles back to Otsuchi to confront past trauma.

Hiroko’s journey finds space for people of various ages who have suffered losses or injustices as a result of the disaster or even other tragedies. She encounters a family of Kurdish refugees who have been discriminated against despite volunteering for clean-up operations after the tsunami and has dinner in the home of an elderly woman in the throes of dementia who can nonetheless recall the terror of the atomic bombing of Hiroshima. Around the halfway mark, the film becomes a two-hander when Haru gets a lift from Morio (Hidetoshi Nishijima), a former nuclear worker from Fukushima now living out of his car. The reason for Morio’s circumstances are revealed when Haru accompanies him on a visit to his abandoned house which gives rise to memories of another life.

Compared to the films that were made immediately after the disaster, Voices in the Wind is light on images of devastation as Takahiro Haibara’s precisely distanced cinematography surveys areas that have since been rebuilt or locations that are typical of road narratives (train stations, diners, convenience stores). However, emotional damage is foregrounded. After leaving the hospital, Haru walks up a countryside road, passes a sign warning of landslides and has the powerful emotional outburst amidst the rubble that triggers her journey. The film may subsequently navigate relatively anonymous geographic terrain, but through Haru’s interactions with others, it’s made clear that individual and communal fissures remain. The possibility of further expressions of trauma permeate the rest of a film which exudes a haunting sense of stillness even when it is on the move. While the mood is occasionally enhanced by Hiroko Sebu’s ethereal music, the film is really scored by sound designer Takaaki Yamaomoto who accentuates the very everydayness that those who have suffered deeply find so hard to readjust to.

If the theme of homecoming resonates through the characters of Haru and Morio, it is also relevant to Suwa who has been making films in France since the early 2000s and here pays sincere tribute to the thousands of people who are seeking meaning in tragedy. Some may find Haru’s episodic encounters a tad contrived as, aside from being hassled by a gang of crude youths, everyone she meets is kindly so she otherwise travels across Japan risk-free, but Suwa is creating landscape of sustained melancholia with an intuitive performance from the impressive Motola, who found fame as a model, setting the tone.

Voices in the Wind was inspired by news of a pilgrimage destination in Otsuchi where a telephone booth without a connection (a “wind phone”) allows mourners to “speak” to deceased loved ones, with this real-life element being deftly woven into the narrative. Suwa uses this place for a scene of outpouring but stops short of full catharsis, solemnly acknowledging that Haru’s “call” is just the latest step on a long journey to renewal.

Voices in the Wind is streaming as part of JAPAN CUTS: Festival of New Japanese Film from July 17-30.