by Ellen Robinette
Prior to the film screening, Eiko Otake takes the stage to speak a moment. She gives context to her project, of the tragedy experienced by collective populations and her personal witnessing — the incidents of September 11th in the US and the triple disasters that hit Fukushima. Otake had participated in an artist residency, located in one of the Twin Towers, just a year prior to 9 / 11. “Seeing the towers fall… I actually lost my mind, entire body to the floor”. She speaks steady, with an occasional pause, but with a passion behind her words. “The things we build are bound to break and no one expects it”, Otake says of human structures; that we don’t carry the same expectation for smaller things (ie. radio or dishes) but expect it of buildings. Two years later, on March 11th, Fukushima was hit with a tsunami, an earthquake, and a nuclear accident. It was, as Otake describes, the “second biggest shock, not as a surprise but because it happened”.
The film begins, consisting of a series of photographs taken at disaster sites in Fukushima. The name of the location and distance from a disaster point is listed on the screen at the beginning of each sequence. There is some additional text between that is narration, personal insight from Otake. Many of the shots included Otake, laying, dancing, interacting with the space. Her movement is implied by the positions captured and the speed the photos are changed. Playing throughout the film, there is a soundtrack made up of ambient sounds coordinating with the images. It includes insects buzzing, birds chirping, the wind and other elements, string instruments, machinery–a mix of nature and man made.
Otake visits sites such as the remains of a home (both in 2014 and 2016). She is dressed in traditional japanese robes, with bold patterns and often bright colors. When she returns at the later date all evidence of the house is gone; once a pile of rubble and ruins now just a pile of dirt. Otake wonders if it has been buried underneath, or demolished entirely. She does this for all the locations, coming multiple times over the course of years to bear witness to the changes. A transit station (2014 then 2017) — “My body remembers this place. My body remembers the remorse” reads in white text on black, then shows Otake laying alongside the platform, heaviness to her body.
Entire towns were destroyed, never to return to their entirety. Photos show their lifespan, first decimated by disaster, then cleared / decontaminated, and sometimes repopulated; or more often, not and left to sit baren. Later in the film, it is explained that unused land not common in Japan, so there is significance of empty fields, and abandoned spaces. Photos of Otake play, eyes downcast as if mourning, a sadness running through her whole body. She is standing near a tangled mess of boats, the sound of waves crash, as text informs that the water is contaminated. “Things humans create resemble humans” Otake notes. The remaining structures standing are described with words like ‘exposed belly’, ‘ribs’, and ‘spilled guts’. A shot of Otake, red against blue sky, on a station platform where nothing else remains. A makeshift memorial has appeared, grows over time / with each visit, and a garden is planted. A few years later, in 2016, it is all gone. Otake moves through the empty space with a dance that appears to grieve loss, and loss again. Another year passes, and an entire new station has been built. Text flashes: “staging normalcy”.
Otake’s figure appears, dressed in all white against the backdrop of a wall built of black trash bags. Later, an inverse shows as Otake stands in a dark robe against a pale wall holding contaminated debris. Her smallness is evident, magnified by the mass amounts of ruin. In the final sequence of photos, Otake is on beach 4 miles from one of the fallen power plants. She is dangerously close for exposure, acknowledged in her narrative text that she should not be there. Her body seems slightly more calm here, in her expressions and poses. The alternating text reveals Otake’s thoughts on human desire and praise to make things quickly without thoughts on consequences. “We are breakable” she reminds — a description of our structures as well as our individual selves.
Afterwards, Otake shares a little more about her process. The red cloak seen in the film is silk, dyed a vivid vermillion hue, and was made from ancestor’s kimonos with help from her mom. The photos were taken by William Johnston, and were never staged or posed. She danced / moved, and was documented in the act. Otake’s hope was to bring Fukushima to the public so no one would have to go themselves. She understands the severity of the situation, the risk of radiation. She is very serious and sincere in her intentions, but also displays her sense of humor, and is self-claimed to be ‘timid’. Nothing is rehearsed or pre-planned — “Going to Fukushima is my choreography”. Otake explains that somethings you can only know by going to the place, to feel remorse. Other things you don’t have to see for yourself, and are not necessary if it can spare you harm. That we need to trust others and what they say, to stay informed; that reading is an experience. Otake made the film for people to experience, and for her it was a chance to process loss and regret.