Shortly before the devastating earthquake and tsunami struck the coast of Japan in March 2011, a resident of Otsuchi constructed the “wind telephone” as a way of “communicating” with a relative who had recently passed away. As his words would obviously not reach him in the usual way, he hoped they might be carried on the wind though like a letter never intended to be sent, the sentiment is perhaps more important than the delivery. In the years since the disaster, over 30,000 people have picked up the receiver, hoping to reconnect in some way with those they’ve lost. Widely reported in the international media, the story of the Wind Telephone brought director Nobuhiro Suwa back to Japan for the first time in 18 years after a career mostly spent in Europe as a young woman attempts to come to terms with the past in order to find the strength to continue living in the wake of such devastating grief.
Nine years old when the tsunami struck, 17-year-old Haru (Serena Motola) lost everything in a single moment. Her family home was destroyed, her parents and younger brother swept out to sea their bodies never found. Since then she’s been living in Kure, Hiroshima, with her aunt Hiroko (Makiko Watanabe) who suggests making a visit to Otsuchi to attend an event celebrating the town’s rejuvenation but Haru is understandably reluctant. When Hiroko is taken ill suddenly, however, she finds herself making the trip alone, reeling in her sense of abandonment and in search of some kind of answer to her sorrow.
Throughout the course of her journey she encounters many other griefstricken souls, not all of them in a direct sense at least affected by the earthquake but carrying a heavy burden all the same. A concerned old man who spots Haru lying vacantly in a quarry and takes her home reveals that he did so in part because she had an absent look that reminded him of his sister who took her own life over a decade previously. “Stay alive” he pleads with her as he drops her off at the local station after a good meal and an oddly cathartic conversation with his elderly mother who spoke of her memories of the atom bomb and a relative who went to the city in search of his wife’s family but returned only with a funeral urn which, to her consternation, contained no bones only a button from a student’s jacket. 70 years later she still feels ashamed for her six-year-old curiosity to know what human bones looked like.
This sense of what remains and what is swept away becomes central to Haru’s ongoing journey. It isn’t just the people who are gone, but the spaces they inhabited and memories contained within them. An elderly gentleman (Toshiyuki Nishida) finds himself reduced to tears while watching an old comedy he must have seen countless times before, overcome with grief on seeing the paddies and fields as they once were while a local folk tune plays in the background. The man who travels with Haru for much of the trip, Morio (Hidetoshi Nishijima), declares himself homeless but does in fact have a home only one he can’t bear to visit, while Haru’s no longer exists at all, reduced to foundations still partially submerged yet overgrown as nature begins to reclaim its territory.
Meanwhile, she discovers other kinds of grief and displacement in meeting the family of a Kurdish refugee who went to Fukushima to help after the earthquake but is now indefinitely detained by immigration officials while they decide on his case. The man’s daughter, perhaps slightly younger than Haru, explains to her that she’s acted as an interpreter in hospitals for other Kurdish women who are often isolated and speak little Japanese. She’s decided that she’d like to become a nurse to go on helping people, but Haru can find little of her positive forward motion, stuck as she is in the past with no real concept of the future.
But then, there are also signs of life. The first people who pick Haru up hitchhiking are a cheerful heavily pregnant woman and her more serious brother. The woman confesses that she’s having the baby on her own, and that many did not approve of her decision thinking her too old at 43 to become a mother. “Isn’t it amazing how we can just make another person?” she exclaims, “It’s like there’s a whole little universe inside you”. In the midst of all this grief, there is life too, not to mention warmth and kindness such as that found in each of those who help Haru on her way until she finally reaches the telephone.
Using mostly improvised dialogue, Suwa’s European arthouse aesthetic has an elegiac quality as Haru edges her way towards an accommodation with her grief, resolving to live on even in the wake of tragedy. “Because I’m alive I remember all of you” she adds, acknowledging her place with the grand sweep of history. “It’s OK”, Morio tells her, “you’ll be OK” speaking for himself as much as anyone else, looking towards a possible future if in memory of the irretrievable past.
Original trailer (English subtitles)