The film Asahiza, whose international premiere was screened at Japan Society in New York on April 20 2015, documents the precarious life of a cinema and kabuki theatre in the town of Minamisoma, very close to the Dai Ichi Kangyo nuclear power plant in Fukushima. The film beautifully uses bursts of conversation, dark image, extended silence and a muted series of guitar solos as a way of setting the mood without overt commentary on the horrors of the earthquake, tsunami, or the nuclear meltdown within Fukushima. It lingers long after the viewing.
Director Hikaru Fujii has said of his technique: “Yet another artist attempts to continue the pre-3.11 individual and independent art production, carrying the physical sensation of bearing the silence within. I think if there is anything that art can do, it is something along the lines of breaking the silence, utilising numerous means to do so.”
The film opens with us as viewers and bus riders seated in a tour bus cruising the highways of the former “Fukushima exclusion zone,” 23 kilometers from the Fukushima Daiichi Nuclear Power Plant. As the tour bus guide describes the barren area marked by arid land all passengers are silent. Pointing outside to foxes roaming the highways and the deserted plains, the guide says that the foxes have taken over the city streets also. The foxes come very close to the bus. Rubble and bagged, presumably irradiated garbage can dimly be viewed outside.
The guide never mentions the reason that the towns of Fukushima are deserted- and the foxes have taken over – he never mentions the “accident” of 3/11.
The tour bus takes us all to the Asahiza, built in 1923, the former nerve center of Minamisoma, a place where couples courted up high in the seats near the ceiling, and giggling, chattering children viewed the latest anime. Townspeople tell us that people dropped in to chat during their shopping days and stayed to view the presentations of the evening, no matter how late – often as late as midnight.
The camera pans to a small boy who is now lying silently asleep on the seats, a technique used frequently - present image vs. spoken memory of the past.. He never moves or speaks. One wonders if he is even alive.
Remnants of the Asahiza’s kabuki viewing past emerge from the more animated interviewees—“Waah! Bando Tamasaburo was great!,” they say, holding up masks, and costumes, and pieces of cinema and kabuki posters, and reminiscing knowledgably about past performances. They say people were always standing at the performances- the place was always full.
But the theatre was closed down in the 1990’s, due to a drop in attendance. As people ceased to do their business in the city center they ceased to stop in at the Asahiza. “When I look back, I feel sad.” says one lady interviewed for the camera, which lingers on her determinedly cheerful face.
Since the 90’s the theatre has only occasionally been used for screenings by the “Asahiza Appreciation Club” to preserve it from further deterioration, with the hope of even re-opening it at some time in the future.
Many of the people interviewed for the film, vivacious middle aged housewives, look back fondly to their evenings spent viewing the cinematic dreams of films of the 1950’s at the Asahiza. They appear to identify past happiness in youth with their attendance at the Asahiza, implicitly contrasting their happy past lives with their husbands’ current struggles to find meaningful work.
Young married women, also determinedly cheerful, nevertheless lament the current bleak economic situation of Minamisoma. They are distressed by the distances their husbands have to travel to work, and the late hours when they come home by bus - noting also that you can’t get goods easily from the former center city shopping areas but have to travel to the large shopping malls outside Minamisoma.
One man sits staring blankly into the camera, He says nothing, eyes wide, face flat but expressionless, not responding to questions or comments from the interviewer or his anxiously loquacious wife. She says that they used to spend their courting evenings at the Asahiza- their families told them to go, there was no other place for them to go. The man does not respond to her attempts to lighten the atmosphere. She says, “He has been having a bad day” that “he has been like this since the horses went away and he has no animals to take care of.”
This blank-faced, probably traumatized man is the one person in the film who may demonstrate damage by the events in Fukushima.. In its way it is a highly effective technique- the absence of comment means that the viewer is forced to fill in the events of 3/11.
Hikaru Fujii, at greater length, speaks on his technique of silenceas speech. On “Artists and the [Fukushima] Disaster: Documentation in Progress” (2012) he says:
When posed the question ‘What can art do?’ in a critical situation, in which we are exposed to not only a natural disaster and severe accident, but to acts of political, economic and psychological violence, a contemporary art becomes deeply unsettled, in an everyday world that urges ‘problem solving.’ ‘Festival,’ as a form of religious ritual art created during the pre-modern era, was needed as a technique to regenerate, that is, to reconstruct affected areas. However, art from the modern era on, which attempted to separate itself entirely from its societal functions under the call for freedom, was stuck and afflicted. It stood in silence, faced with the decision of whether or not the technique to overcome crises could be included into the plasticity of artistic expression. Even in such circumstances, one artist makes a decision, opening to a relationship with social networks beyond the individual level. Another artist places songs in the lungs of each victim who had swallowed seawater, retaliating with poetic means against a crumbling world struck by the nuclear reactor accident. Yet another artist attempts to continue the pre-3.11 individual and independent art production, carrying the physical sensation of bearing the silence within. I think if there is anything that art can do, it is something along the lines of breaking the silence, utilising numerous means to do so.
The original text by Hikaru Fujii comes from the exhibition catalogue “Artists and the Disaster – Documentation in Progress” (2012) at the Contemporary Art Center, Art Tower Mito (Japan).