A Heartwarming Documentary About Hawai‘i and Fukushima
Jodie Chiemi Ching
Like most of us who grew up in Hawai‘i, my fondest memories are from “small-kid-time.” On Hayden Street in Kapahulu, I met my first best friend — Leimana, learned to swim and fish for ‘oama at Waikiki Beach and heard about Hawaiian Night Marchers that sometimes passed through, one street over from our house. My furusato, or hometown, is more than just a place, it’s part of who I am. So, when I saw the documentary film, “Bon-Uta, A Song From Home,” my eyes were open to how much our furusato is part of our identity, and what it would be like to have it suddenly ripped away.
The documentary was recently screened in Maui at the Lahaina Jodo Mission, and on O‘ahu at the Honolulu Museum of Art, in the Doris Duke Theatre.
“Bon-Uta, A Song From Home,” reveals the permanent scars left on the hearts of the survivors of the 2011 earthquake, tsunami and nuclear disaster in Japan’s Töhoku region. How do people move forward from the heartbreak of losing their furusato and its beloved traditions passed down through the generations?
This film tells an important story of connection and healing through friendship, culture, music and tradition. Film producer, Ai Iwane, and director, Yuji Nakae, presents the true story about how several evacuees, from the town of Futaba in Fukushima, fight to save a generations-old tradition.
With dangerously high radiation levels in Futaba, residents were forced to leave their furusato and find new homes in other parts of Japan.
In 2015, several townspeople reunited, in an effort to revive their beloved “Futaba Bon-Uta.” In the beginning scenes of the movie, we got to know taiko drummer and drum maker, Hisakatsu Yokoyama and his fellow musicians from Futaba. We saw the many effects of the nuclear disaster when Yokoyama travelled back to his home in Futaba. He was let into the area by a guard and allowed to stay for only a few hours. In the abandoned town, overgrown weeds and foliage have replaced the bustling of everyday life.
The first heart-rending scene was of the broken graves in Futaba. The headstones broke off of their foundation and the names of the deceased that once stood upright, have respectfully returned to the tops of the grave, but lain on their sides. It was as if the disaster was so far-reaching, it even broke the hearts of ancestors who have passed on.
The experience of Mieko Ito, one of the main singers, was particularly moving. When the Futaba musicians got together, she could not project her voice. In Futaba, she could practice on her balcony and the neighbors would not mind. But now, as an evacuee in a new neighborhood, she didn’t want to bother her neighbors. So whether it was singing, drumming or playing the flute, they were all out of practice.
When Ito went back to her house in Futaba for a short visit, she tried to sing on her balcony – it wasn’t the same. Full of emotion, her voice struggled. It was not until the group headed to an unlikely destination when they began to heal and shared their “Futaba Bon-Uta.”
Around this time, Iwane had been taking photographs of bon dance in Hawai‘i, which led her to examine the relevant connection between Hawai‘i and Fukushima from the aspect of immigration. Learning about Futaba’s situation, she made a suggestion to Yokoyama. “Ai told me there is bon dance in Hawai‘i,” said Yokoyama. “It’s a ‘Bon-Uta’ of old Fukushima immigrants [performed] every summer.”
The group decided to go to Maui, where they meet Kay Fukumoto, leader of Maui Taiko and a descendant of immigrants who brought Fukushima’s “Bon-Uta” to Hawai‘i over 100 years ago.
I shed tears once again when the group is shown a pole that says “Fukushima” on it. It had washed up on the shores of Maui after the 2011 earthquake and tsunami hit Töhoku. It was clear, by the tears in everyone’s eyes, that it was a divine message: “Hawai‘i and Fukushima are connected.”
In Maui, Ito began to smile more. She sang, this time, with purpose. She taught the young Hawai‘i bon dance singers her “Futaba Bon-Uta.”
Appearances from Hawai‘i Nikkei — Former Gov. George Ariyoshi, whose father emigrated from Fukuoka; Grace Amemiya Sakai of the Hawaii Shochiku Orchestra; and the late Faye Komagata, founder of Hawaii Taiko Kai and wife of Rev. Shugen Komagata of Soto Mission of Hawaii — underscored the connection between Hawai‘i and Fukushima. In the film, Faye was visibly ill with pancreatic cancer. I think her bittersweet interview will give a sense of peace to those who knew her, especially when she sings, “Hamabe no Uta – Song of the Seashore.”
Futaba survivors and the Issei immigrants who came to Hawai‘i share the loss of their furusato. As they watched the descendants — from a few nisei that are still living, to young gosei — enthusiastically perpetuating bon dance in Hawai‘i, they learned, “Everything will be alright.” With a new awareness, the Futaba group returned to Japan.
Yokoyama and the rest of the Futaba group returned to Japan inspired and spiritually transformed. He even composed a musical taiko piece to express his emotions. It’s about a sakura tree and an ogre. He explained that the ogre represents the harmful radiation, and the sakura tree is fighting back, trying to bloom and believes people will come back to Futaba.
Then Yokoyama reconnected with other survivors from various areas of Fukushima to plan a “Joint Bon Dance Festival” to be held in Iwaki City, now the main gathering place for Fukushima natives. Representatives from eight towns in Fukushima agreed to participate, and everyone was excited. Evacuee Kazuharu Fukuda said, “When summer comes, my body responds. Once I feel the humidity of the sea, I start thinking, ‘It’s time!’”
Sprinkled throughout the footage of the Joint Matsuri, were old photographs of the people of Fukushima. Black and whites of bon dance festivals from decades ago, farmers, businessmen and the hustle and bustle of life of the streets in Fukushima. Those who are living today don’t know if it will ever be safe enough to move back to their furusato in this lifetime.
The film lost me during an animation part, which I thought went off on an unnecessary tangent. But then brought me back at the end of the film. The final scene was festive and haunting at the same time. A yagura (scaffold where musicians perform during bon dance) floated in darkness, with the Futaba ensemble gathered within and lit with heavenly light from above.
When I asked director Nakae, via a long-distance phone call, about the final scene, he said that he wanted the audience to use their imagination. The “Futaba Bon-Uta” is no longer a performance; it is a gift to all beings with a human form or without. By the end of the documentary, I learned the power of music and its ability to connect people of different cultures and languages. It is because music connects the hearts of people no matter what their differences are.
Iwane said there are more screenings being planned, though there are no confirmed dates at the moment. For updates, follow the “Film ‘Bon Uta-A Song from Home’ Hawaii Screenings” Facebook page.