March 11 Brings the Japanese Together

Culture Lifestyle

The documentary film Japan in a Day weaves together video footage taken by amateurs on the same day—March 11, 2012, exactly one year after the devastating earthquake and tsunami. We talk to the British and Japanese directors to find out more.

Philip Martin

British. Born in Lebanon. Television director and screenwriter. Directed the film Hawking, released in 2004, about the life of the Cambridge University professor Stephen Hawking. This film was nominated for a British Academy Television Award. Directed Prime Suspect: The Final Act (2006), Wallander (2008), the television series Agatha Christie’s Poirot (2010), and most recently Birdsong (2012).

Narita Gaku

Born in Kyoto in 1972. Spent much of his youth in Spain, the United States, and Argentina. After graduating from a masters course in law at Keiō University, started working for Fuji Television in 1997 as a drama director. Directed Puropōzu daisakusen (Operation Love, 2007), Tokyo Dogs (2009), and several other dramas. Also directed Tokyo kontorōru tōkyō kōkūkōtsū kanseibu (Tokyo Control, 2011), a 3D production that was chosen as a finalist in the television drama category for the 2012 New York Festivals.

The eleventh of March will be a date that the Japanese will never forget. Like August 15, which commemorates the end of the war, it is a day that will bring the whole nation together. Fuji Television producer Hayakawa Takayuki wanted to use social media to make a record of how ordinary people spent their time on March 11, 2012, exactly one year after that fateful day when the enormous earthquake and tsunami struck Eastern Japan. The British film director Ridley Scott joined the project as an executive producer, and amateur filmmakers across the globe were asked to contribute using the video publishing website YouTube. Around 8,000 videos were submitted from 12 countries, amounting to 300 hours in total. Under the direction of Philip Martin and Narita Gaku, the footage was edited to produce the documentary film Japan in a Day.



One Year Later

With so much video footage from so many people, living in so many different places and in such different situations, how did you, as directors, make headway with the editing process?

Narita With every video submitted, we looked at the footage and asked ourselves what the filmmakers had found intriguing and what was important to them. Communicating the message in each fragment was the key consideration. As our work proceeded, we had many debates with each other about how to best express that message, and how to collate all of the material into a cohesive film.

Martin I think we were trying to make sure that the film lets all the different voices come through, and that as filmmakers we don’t stand in the way of the audience. But on issues like nuclear power and radiation or other controversial areas, we had to make sure that the film is even-handed, and that it represents a truthful account of what each contributor was saying while also being a fair account of what happened. So we tried to strike a balance between not impeding people from saying what they wanted to say just because their opinions differed from ours, while also providing viewers with an honest and truthful account of what we as filmmakers feel.

While editing this film together, we were trying to uncover the central story. We kept asking ourselves: “What is the story? What are they saying?” And we had to consider how the story might change if we put a certain shot next to another—and whether the change would be a good thing and truthful.

Martin We knew that at 2:46 in the afternoon many of our different stories would come together. After we had started to learn about their lives, and after we had started to understand a little about what they felt, we knew that they would all be coming together for a minute’s silence at 2:46. So we had a fixed point in the film that we knew we would have to build up to, and that would in some ways be a very sad point. It was the moment where the mood would likely sink to its lowest point, particularly among the film’s viewers. The audience would have many personal memories of that day and to take them back to that moment could be heartrending. So had to make a journey to that powerful moment, and then take the audience toward the film’s end.


Narita From an early stage in the project we agreed that the overall structure of the film should follow those lines. As we were looking through the footage submitted, it wasn’t a case of stumbling upon one scene and immediately knowing that it had to be included; it was more about the overall flow of the film. We slowly condensed the content together until it took shape. Each small fragment formed part of a larger story that was slowly knitted together. I think the work was like distilling an enormous mixture into a cohesive structure.

Looking Back and Moving Forward

Martin Let me give you an example regarding the flow of the story. We didn’t want to only show happy scenes after 2:46 and bring everything to an end on that note. And so, near the end of the film, we see footage from one of the contributors who has a daughter named Sakura about to celebrate her first birthday. He recalls how on the day of the disaster he had gone to try and rescue people from the tsunami, and that he is still plagued by the memory of a young girl he couldn’t save. He makes this tearful confession in front of the camera of that terrible sense of guilt.

It felt like that was the kind of moment the audience needed to hear. What I also found very moving about that story was that by the process of talking, by the process of confessing his true feelings to the camera, he was able to ease that pain somewhat. Right at the end he says, “I needed to tell you that.” We felt that this was a way to balance the tragedy that took place with people’s own personal journeys of trying to come to terms with it and get on with their lives.

Philip Martin says that producing the film gave him a better appreciation of Japanese life. He knows quite a bit about Southeast Asia, because his father was a British diplomat and he grew up in Saigon, Hong Kong, Malaysia, and Singapore; but this was his first visit to Japan.

Martin As a teenager I loved music and all of my pop heroes in England were people like David Bowie, Roxy Music, Brian Eno, who all loved Japan. So I tried to find out a little about the country. I loved Yellow Magic Orchestra and Sakamoto Ryūichi, and when I was young it was really cool to know a little bit about Japan. Obviously I didn’t know much but I tried to pretend that I knew more than I did. [Laughs]

When the opportunity came to work on this film, I thought it was a perfect opportunity to explore Japan and get a better idea of the outlook of its people through a film documenting 24 hours in the life of the country—exactly one year to the day after the tragedy. You know that people are replaying the events of that day and that it’s very important to them. The project gave me a chance to take an amazing journey into a world that’s quite different from my own, but one that has always fascinated me.

There’s a scene in the film where a woman is carefully wrapping up dolls in cloth to store them away in a box until using them for next year’s for hinamatsuri [a Japanese doll festival]. It was clearly a task that she found comforting and reassuring; it gave her a sense of order. If you saw this as an outsider, you would just think that she was wrapping things up and putting them back in a box. But actually, there are many aspects of Japanese life that have this beautiful, complex, subtle and intimate quality. And that’s what the film has helped me to understand: how much complexity, subtlety and beauty there is to be found in the country’s everyday life.

Impressions of the Japanese People

Narita As a Japanese person, what I took from the process of making the film was a rediscovery of how strong people in Japan can be. They always give things their all. I think the film says more about their attitude toward life than it does about how they face death. If we look carefully at what’s important, I think that there’s a lot that the Japanese can do for the world in the future. The Japanese spirit of cooperation has been well known for a long time—the way of acting for the benefit of everyone, without thinking of personal gain.

Martin As an outsider I’m amazed and in awe of the Japanese ability to deal with such a terrible event and to try to find a way to move forward. That, to me, is what’s been so inspiring. This terrible thing has happened, it doesn’t make sense, it’s a random act of nature. Yet, as a human being, you have to somehow find meaning and move forward. You have to rebuild your life and continue. The very small glimpse that I’ve had of these people has been very inspiring and very humbling. I’ve seen people that have endured things that I can’t even begin to imagine. But they’ve done it with great bravery and dignity and with a desire to solve problems, fix things, make things better and move forward. That’s been really inspiring.

(Interview recorded on October 21, 2012.)

(2012, Japan-UK joint production)

Directors: Philip Martin, Narita Gaku
Executive Producers: Ridley Scott, Kameyama Chihiro
Editing: Kristina Hetherington, Matsuo Hiroshi
Music: Nitin Sawhney
Production: Fuji Television
Distribution: Gaga
Opening film at the 25th Tokyo International Film Festival


earthquake tsunami March 11 film documentary Narita Gaku Philip Martin Ridley Scott