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Friday, Nov. 2, 2012

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Smiling in the face of tragedy: A scene from "Japan in a Day," a documentary stitched together from public home-movie submissions shot in Japan on the first anniversary of the March 11 earthquake. © 2012 fuji television network, japan in a day films ltd.

'3/11 made Japanese treasure the simple and normal things in life'


Special to The Japan Times

The notion of a crowd-funded film — whose production is financed by money solicited from potential fans online — has begun to gain a bit of traction, but when it comes to crowd-sourced films, Ridley Scott and his production company Scott Free seem to be one step ahead of everyone else. Their 2011 film "Life in a Day" took amateur videos shot by roughly 80,000 people across the globe and edited them into a seamless stream to present a multifaceted view of life on the planet.

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Director Philip Martin

With "Japan in a Day," the franchise takes on a greater poignancy and purpose: This project, made in collaboration with Fuji TV, had 8,000 people across Japan film their lives on March 11, 2012, exactly one year after the devastating earthquake and tsunami hit the Tohoku region and the Fukushima No. 1 reactors began melting down. It was a day that changed Japan, and "Japan in a Day" attempts to measure that change.

The submissions ran over 300 hours in full, and I ask Philip Martin — who codirected the project with Fuji's Gaku Narita — whether he actually viewed it all, or let their editors sift through it.

Martin replies that he viewed every minute of it, noting that "a kind of paranoia takes over and you wake up worrying that you might have missed something amazing. But we also had a great team of Japanese loggers who built up a database that would allow you to search for anything, using a keyword or time of day."

My reaction to the film was torn between appreciating its more poignant moments — a Japanese man whose stolid, old-school demeanor breaks down as he recalls losing his family in the tsunami, or a conveyor-belt sushi shop utterly still, observing a minute of silence in memory of the disaster victims — and being surprised at how mundane other sections were, with cute kids mucking around with the camera, or people pouring ketchup on their omelet-rice.

I ask Martin why they didn't keep the film more sharply focused on the aftermath of 3/11.

"I suppose (it's) because life is a mixture of the epic and the ordinary," he says. "Even in the most emotional of days, people still talk about ordinary things, make breakfast or walk the dog. In fact, many of our filmmakers made that exact point when they sent in their footage, that the events of 2011 had made them treasure the simple and normal things in life: family, food, friends, nature."

Essentially, films such as "Japan in a Day" are a curated version of YouTube, home videos with editing to give them shape and an overall structure. When asked how hard it was to find a theme in the material, Martin replies: "We worked by responding emotionally to what we liked, and through that process the material itself began to speak to us, to suggest the shape and meaning of the film.

"I think what's brilliant about films like this — and what's new — is that they move away from representing a single, top-down view of the world. It's democratic, personal, emotional — at times contradictory or inconsistent — but always something that feels true to life."

For this viewer, the difference between the scenes shot in Tohoku — where the pain and reality still bites —and those shot elsewhere —where life goes on as normal, other than the occasional antinuclear protest — left the impression that there are now two Japans.

"Both Gaku and myself were keen for the film not to appear to be making a specific political message — or any particular message," says the director when asked whether that is a fair interpretation. "I think we wanted to balance looking forward and looking back. And more importantly, our filmmakers did too.

"Of course, the past and events of 3/11 are inescapable — but so too is the future. Nothing can be the same again, but going forward is not necessarily to deny the past, and everyone will have a different view of how to do that. That's what we wanted 'Japan in a Day' to reflect: that there is no one right way to view the events of last year, but by sharing different points of view, we could mark a moment at this special time in Japan's history."

"Japan in a Day" opens Nov. 3.

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