“Before the earthquake the hardest part about this job was seeing old people die alone. Now a mother can’t even leave a child in a coffin to go home,” the quote is from Tsuneo Aiba, a retired mortician. He is the central character in the film REUNION, which is one of many that, can be seen for free at the Eiga Sai film festival at Shang Cineplex, Shang Rila Plaza Mall.
Eiga Sai will run from July 3-13 at Shang Cineplex for Metro Manila and will move on to other cities. In Davao Eiga Sai will screen in Abreeza Mall from July 25-27 and FDCP Cinematheque, July 29 to August 3. It will then go to Cebu City Ayala Center from August 6-10.
The Tohoku earthquake and tsunami that occurred in March 11, 2011 in Japan is still fresh in people’s minds around the world. The tsunami was even more devastating than the earthquake. But what dominated the headlines then were the heavily damaged Fukushima Nuclear Power Plants. This is because of the still impending danger that it presented from the meltdown. Two years on residents near the power plant are still unable to return to their homes.
The world didn’t seem to get the news or the human side of the tragedy, especially in other areas. REUNION focuses on the City of Kawaishi, Iwate Prefecture one of the most devastated cities and how they dealt with the disaster. The film is based on a book by Kota Ishii entitled “Itai Shinsai, Tsunami no Hate ni ” (The Bodies at the End of the Earthquake and Tsunami)
The film is an intimate look at how religious, cultural traditions in dealing with loss of life are essential in helping those who survived overcome their grief. This is exactly what Filipino academician and NCCA Head of the Committee on Visual Arts was referring to when he said, “We are banking on the cultural values. If we recognize our own Philippine culture, malakas e, it will strengthen us it will strengthen the resolve. We will realize who we are. When they learn who they are it will bolster their character.”
Tañedo was talking about the LAKAS PILIPINO LAKAS TAYO project that was conducted in Yolanda hit areas in Palo, Leyte. The program was conducted to help typhoon victims rebuild their lives months after the strongest typhoon in recorded history claimed more than 10,000 lives.
In REUNION the soothing and calming effect of the Shinto traditions were even more crucial immediately after the disaster. Only days after they were faced with an almost impossible task of sorting through countless bodies. At the height of the crisis, respect for the deceased is the least of their priorities. Seeing this, a retired mortician Tsuneo Aiba volunteered his services for free in order to properly prepare them.
While soldiers toss bodies into the temporary morgue and breaks legs and hands of those who have rigor mortis to fit body bags and maximize space, Aiba was horrified. He constantly speaks to each as if they’re alive. He instructs all of the soldiers to massage muscles in order to move limbs without having to break bones. He insists on cleanliness of the bodies, of the surrounding areas must be maintained. These are all necessary so that when family members find the deceased they will be better able to deal with their grief. Aiba’s efforts make a huge difference to the people who have lost their loved ones in so many ways.
One of the most powerful scenes is when they decided to add an altar (a bowl of sand with incense) at the temporary morgue. A Shinto priest who sings a hymn for the dead is almost choked up by the number of dead and has difficulty finishing it. The families, city staff and volunteers however, all took enormous comfort in hearing it.
The direction and screenplay by Ryoichi Kimizuka is very straightforward the film however, is able to make its own deeper statement apart from the book. 2-time Japan Academy Award winner Toshiyuki Nishida plays the central character of Aiba. There’s a genuine concern and appreciation for their ways that Nishida is able to shine through in the character of Aiba. He’s a hero in the most unglamorous, simplest of ways. He plunges himself in the worst job because he cares for those who are deceased. Perhaps the performance of the role comes with Nishida’s age in real life who is now 66 years old. He is able to draw from real life experiences and a genuine appreciation for the way things were.
Japan Foundation Assistant Dir Yukie Mitomi chose this particular film because of the relevance to the Philippines especially after Ondoy and Yolanda. And she made the right choice in spite of the different language and religion the message of the REUNION is just as relevant and powerful to us here as it is in Japan. It reminds us that we can turn to our own traditions and culture in order to deal with our own loss.