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On March 11, 2011, the Great East Japan Earthquake struck off the coast of Japan, leaving 15,372 people confirmed dead and 7,762 reported still missing. In the wake of the largest earthquake in the country’s history, some people drew the courage to revive and rebuild from cherry-blossom season, which began within weeks of the tragedy.
Oscar-nominated this year for Best Documentary Short Subject, ‘The Tsunami And The Cherry Blossom’ shows how nature can be a rejuvenating – as well as a destructive – force when it debuts Monday, July 16 (10:00-10:40 p.m. ET/PT), exclusively on HBO. Directed by Lucy Walker (the Oscar-nominated documentary feature “Waste Land”), this poignant film debuts immediately after the debut of the SXSW Film Festival hit “Birders: The Central Park Effect,” which offers a different look at how nature touches people.
HBO Documentary Films presents another weekly series this summer, debuting provocative new specials every Monday through July 30. Other July films include: “Hard Times: Lost on Long Island” (July 9); “Birders: The Central Park Effect” (July 16); “Vito” (July 23); and “About Face: Supermodels Then and Now” (July 30).
‘The Tsunami And The Cherry Blossom’ is a stunningvisual poem about the ephemeral nature of life, and the healing power of Japan’s most beloved flower. The nation is transfixed by cherry blossom season, which runs from late March through April, with many people tracking the blossoms’ short lifecycle and attending “hanami,” or viewing parties, with family and friends.
Walker had originally planned to visit Japan to make a film about cherry-blossom season, but on March 11, 2011, while she was making final preparations for her trip, a magnitude 9.0 earthquake struck, triggering tsunami waves of up to 133 feet on Japan’s northeastern coast. Initially unsure whether to continue, she flew to Tokyo with a small film crew and headed north to the Tohuku region, where she captured both the utter devastation and stoic resolve of survivors, many of whom had lost family members and friends.
‘The Tsunami And The Cherry Blossom’ opens with harrowing home-video footage, shot from a hill, of a huge wave destroying the town below. A month later, a young woman stands on the same hill, remembering how she “watch[ed] people being consumed by the tsunami.” An older man tells how he tried and failed to save his oldest friend, proclaiming, “I don’t want a house. I don’t want clothes. I don’t want anything. I just want his life back.”
Others tell their stories of survival, escaping in their slippers and seeing whole houses rush toward them on a wave of black water. One couple living at a community center returns to the ruins of their house, hoping to rebuild. Their town is within the 30km exclusion zone around the Fukushima power plant, and many people wear cotton masks as protection from radiation.
Amidst the despair in the days following the tsunami comes a glimmer of hope in “sakura” (cherry blossom), a harbinger of spring in Japan and a national symbol of renewal. One man explains how the cherry blossom reflects the Japanese character, saying, “Each flower is tiny, and you can’t see one individually. But it’s beautiful when you see lots of flowers together. Japanese people see themselves that way too.”
Out of respect for the victims, many viewing parties were cancelled this year, but people still visit the blossoms and take pictures. A man who lost his house shows where new plant shoots have sprouted on the beach, commenting that if plants can hang in there, humans can too. A young woman looking at the cleanup and construction adds, “Every year that the trees bloom, they’ll give us the courage to keep going.”
In addition to its Oscar nomination, ‘The Tsunami And The Cherry Blossom’ received the Jury Prize in Short Filmmaking at the 2012 Sundance Film Festival and was an official selection at the Toronto International Film Festival, the Hamptons International Film Festival and BFI London.
For more information on the documentary, please visit: Facebook: facebook.com/hbodocs; and Twitter: @HBODocs #tsunamiblossom.