The Earth Asleep Director Clara Casian On Forgotten Stories From ‪Japan’s Tōhoku Earthquake And Tsunami

On Friday 11 March 2011, one of the most powerful earthquakes ever recorded took place 18 miles from the Oshika Peninsula of Japan, triggering a massive tsunami that killed over 10,000 people.

The Earth Asleep, an artist film directed by Clara Casian, addresses the ways in which our exposure to extreme live-trauma in the form of rolling news and citizen reportage has resulted in an inability to process grief at a manageable, human scale.

Clara joins us on Close-Up Culture to talk about the film – which will be released on BFI Player to mark the 10th anniversary of the Great East Japan disaster.

What are your personal recollections of the ‪Tōhoku earthquake and tsunami? Do you have any standout memories from that time?‬

I was a student in Manchester when it happened, I remember the sheer devastation; news media saturated with dramatic imagery. In 2019, during the making of the film, I was aware of how embedded this event was in the collective memory and consciousness. Yet so many new stories were uncovered during the process. Exploring traumatic events, I understood the need to respond to this theme in a sensitive way, focusing on the macro elements and stories, told by people in remote North-East Japan regions, looking to document history in situ.

The Earth Asleep takes us to the village of Otsuchi in remote North-East Japan. What were your first impressions of the area and the local residents?
There was an overall feeling of warmth and openness, locals and interviewees were willing to share their personal experiences and stories, as well as opening their homes. The morning after filming the Ainu local Haga about the role of the Fire Spirit, in enabling the connection between the dead and the living, he allowed me to record his morning prayer at his house. I was moved by the gesture and that morning ritual had imprinted in my memory in a powerful way.

You’re dealing with incredibly emotive subjects and really painful scars of the past. How was the process of getting people in the local community to open up about their experiences?
For the making of the film, I researched beforehand people in remote North-East Japan regions affected by the disaster, aiming to uncover hidden truths and forgotten stories. I read about monk Eigo Takahashi’s involvement in the community, his efforts to stop the demolishing of the Otsuchi Town Hall government building; during the filming process he donated an invaluable book which he made as a response to this cause – the monograph book “Witness of Life Project” whose images appear in the film became a catalyst in the film.

I also received invaluable support from Atsushi Kuwayama, the production assistant, through interpreting and helping to ease the interviewees. I have undertaken an ethical approach to filmmaking, letting the locals know about my intentions and purpose of the project, prior to filming. The resulting material includes invaluable testimonies and accounts of dispossession and loss, ceremonial rites, cultures and spiritual beliefs. I believe that the film brings forth an understanding of the unknown ways of processing loss and trauma.

What was the process like for editing and piecing together visuals for this film?

I followed the rough filming plan, focusing on the locals’ stories, as individual portraits in the film. Editing represents such an important stage in my work, the weaving of all the different kinds of materials (archive, sounds, contemporary footage) is done in a sensory way in order to emulate a state of being, rather than following a factual or narrative depiction.

The collaboration with poet and monographer plays a very important part as well, the text on screen generates another layer of knowledge creation, highlighting the role of the metaphor as interference with the visual and the sound.

What do you hope is the lasting impact of The Earth Asleep?

I hope that it will help to highlight forgotten stories, because as the years pass and the events enter into a shadow account, only those who have suffered bear the memory of their dear ones. The text at the beginning of the film explains the intention of the project when using a selection of photographs from the book “Witness of Life Project”:
“Each archive portrait used in the film was randomly. chosen […] as symbols representing thousands of other people lost in the natural disasters”

The Earth Asleep is available on BFI Player from March 11

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