Is it fair to compare a short film to an epic work of literature? Oscar-nominated The Tsunami and the Cherry Blossom is only thirty-nine minutes long, but what it brings to mind for me is Dante’s Divine Comedy—a work that we usually treat as three separate books: Hell, Purgatory, and Paradise. (Of that, most of us are really only familiar with Hell.)
Filmmaker Lucy Walker has long been fascinated by the cherry blossoms that are so revered in Japan. She was making plans for a press junket in Japan for a previous film (and to take advantage of the trip to make a brief “visual haiku” of cherry blossoms) when the horrendous 9.0 earthquake and accompanying tsunami and nuclear disaster struck Japan. Although the junket was cancelled, she made the trip and wound up going to the Tohoku region that was totally devastated. There she filmed the aftermath of the disaster and captured a sense of the suffering and the strength of the Japanese people.
Like the Divine Comedy, this film has a very clear three parts. First we see via home videos, the tsunami. We may have seen snippets on TV soon after the event, but this is several minutes of watching the water come closer and closer, destroying everything in its path. We see people trying to flee. We never see them overtaken by the waters, but it seems inevitable. This is truly a descent into hell.
Then Walker gives us not so much a survey of the devastation (although that is certainly part of it) as much as a look at life in the aftermath. We see people sifting through the rubble. They are not looking for food or looting, they are trying to find personal things that families would want to keep if they return (and that is a big if). There are feelings in this part of the film of a very fragile hope, but also of despair and grief. It is, like purgatory, a place that is both painful as it loos to the past (and present), but also looking to a future with hope.
Suddenly in the midst of so much sorrow and devastation, the cherry blossoms begin to appear. Cherry trees are beautiful when they are in bloom and the Japanese have always loved the cherry blossoms. In the Shinto and Buddhist culture of Japan, they have come to symbolize the idea of rebirth and also the Buddhist idea that all existence is in flux. There is a whole circle of life that goes from the bare tree in winter to the pink cloud of blossoms to the falling blossoms covering the ground to fruit and foliage then back to the bare tree. The very fact that the trees blossomed served as a sign of great hope for these people in so much turmoil. There was a bit of paradise that could be seen and enjoyed in these blossoms.
The Divine Comedy is an extended poem. The Tsunami and the Cherry Blossom should also be viewed as poetry. Most documentaries are about facts. To be sure, the reality of what happened in the earthquake and tsunami are always present in the film, but the visuals are so gripping and beautiful—especially in the cherry blossom section—that it transcends any words that can be used to describe it.
The Tsunami and the Cherry Blossom may only be a short film, but the visual and emotional pain and beauty transform this into a journey of epic proportion.