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‘Reunion’ listens to the voices of the deceased from March 11

TOKYO (TR) – Nearly two years have passed since the Great East Japan Earthquake and tsunami devastated Japan’s Tohoku region. In the time since, many documentaries have profiled the destruction and suffering.

Next month’s release of Fuji Television Network’s “Reunion,” however, will be the first to provide a truly compassionate look at the challenges faced in coping with death in the disaster’s immediate aftermath.

Director Ryoichi Kimizuka and producer Chihiro Kameyama visited the tsunami-hit city of Kamaishi, Iwate Prefecture numerous times. The citizens of the city, many of whom are still living in temporary shelters, indicated that the time has finally come for them to face what has happened.

“It seems that two years is a very good turning point, a way of looking back and forward as a part of the recovery process,” said Kameyama after a screening of the film at the Foreign Correspondents’ Club of Japan last Thursday. “Whether two years is a long or short time, I am not sure. But I feel a commitment in continuing to tell this story.”

Based on the non-fiction book “Itai: Shinsai, Tsunami no Hate ni” (The Bodies at the End of the Earthquake and Tsunami) by writer Kota Ishii, “Reunion,” or “Itai” (meaning corpse) in Japanese chronicles the city’s desperate attempt to appropriately transfer corpses from a temporary morgue in a muddy school gymnasium to a crematorium in the weeks immediately following March 11.

Toshiyuki Nishida plays Aida, a retired funeral home employee who volunteers to assist officials and medical workers in the daunting task of preparing numerous soiled bodies stricken with rigor mortis for one final visit from family members. In many cases, Nishida speaks to the corpses as he massages their muscles in an attempt to relax stiffened limbs to make them appear more presentable.

Nishida said in a statement read after the screening that the film will hopefully convey the Japanese view on life and death in how the bereaved try to identify with the emotions of those who have passed away. “Dead bodies, obviously, cannot speak,” said Nishida in a statement read after the screening. “But what we can understand is that the Japanese mentality, or state of mind, in trying hard to hear what the bodies are saying.”

The film generally adheres to the book, Kimizuka said. “Many of the characters were based on real people,” the director said. “I had to ask permission. Some people wanted their stories not to be told, so they are not included in the film, even though they may have been written in the book.”

Music and a score are generally absent from “Reunion,” which is unusual for Kameyama and Kimizuka, both of whom worked on Fuji’s highly popular “Bayside Shakedown” film franchise and television series. The director said he wanted to preserve the atmosphere of the gymnasium at the time as much as possible. When he talked to the people present, they told him there were three things they heard: the sound of shoes in the mud, crying, and emergency vehicles outside.

“I wanted to respect what they remembered,” he said.

“Itai” opens in Japan February 23.