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Tohoku in film: Natural beauty, rich culture and community bonds beyond the tsunami

This Japanese region has so much to offer.

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Long before the devastating March 11, 2011 earthquake and tsunami happened, the Tohoku region in northeastern Japan was synonymous with expansive landscapes, wild forests and gorgeous coastlines. Because of the region’s natural beauty, its six prefectures – Akita, Aomori, Iwate, Fukushima, Miyagi, and Yamagata — used to welcome hordes of tourists eager to get away from the crammed cities to the south.

Post-2011, however, Tohoku became a place associated with the unmeasurable devastation the tsunami brought, and the Fukushima nuclear disaster. The name “Tohoku,” however, also refers to regions that have not been affected by the disaster, and such that are on their way toward a full reconstruction. Those areas have so much to offer visitors: rich food culture, surviving traditions, stunning landscapes and welcoming communities. This is evident from the following movies in this list, which we hope you will enjoy and see Tohoku from a brand new perspective.

1. Fruits of Faith (奇跡のリンゴ), 2013

Set in Hirosaki city in Aomori Prefecture, Fruits of Faith dramatizes a true story about a man passionate about apple farming. Aomori is famous in Japan for its apples but local farmer Akinori Kimura wanted to do something different. After seeing his wife suffer from the effects of the chemical pesticides and fertilizers that are commonly used on the farm, he makes the drastic decision to grow organic apples — something that at the time (1970s Japan), was deemed simply unthinkable.

For the next almost ten years, he struggled, destroying his crop, his reputation, and the family’s finances. At his lowest point, he decided to commit suicide, but then a single vision changed his mind, and eventually his path. In the film, Aomori’s natural landscape and apple orchards provide the perfect backdrop to Kimura’s story of perseverance against all odds.

Cast: Sadao Abe, Miho Kanno
Director: Yoshihiro Nakamura

2. Abraxas (アブラクサスの祭), 2010

Abraxas follows the life of Jonen, a rock musician turned Zen Buddhist monk who serves at a small monastery in Fukushima Prefecture. As a monk in a traditional community, Jonen struggles with the societal expectations of his position as well as his personal demons. For him, the only answer to these problems is through music. In an attempt to heal his pain from the inside out, he decides to hold a live concert in his town, a decision that shows him and his surrounding community that sometimes, nothing — not even traditions — should be limited to what they are and stand for.

Abraxas is based on a novel by Fukushima-born monk and Akutagawa Prize-winning writer, Genyu Sokyu and features real-life Japanese indie rock star, Suneohair, as the troubled monk/musician.

Cast: Suneohair, Rie Tomosaka, Manami Honjo
Director: Naoki Kato

3. Hula Girls (フラガール), 2006

Like Abraxas, Hula Girls is also based in Fukushima. Set in the mid-1960s and inspired by the true story of the Joban Hawaiian Center (now Spa Resort Hawaiians) in Iwaki, the film follows the closing down of the Joban coal mine in favor of the opening of a hot spring resort. The plan to close the mine is met with a lot of resistance from the laid-off miners who wrestle with the decision to allow their daughters to train as hula dancers for the new resort. The determination and passion their daughters have toward embracing their new roles in life, however, are not something their fathers can easily ignore.

Hugely popular title in Japan, Hula Girls won great critical acclaim around the world and swept the Japan Academy Awards in 2007, winning Best Picture, Best Director, Best Screenplay, Best Supporting Actress, and Most Popular Movie.

Cast: Yu Aoi, Etsushi Toyokawa, Yasuko Matsuyuki
Director: Sang-il Lee

4. Little Forest: Winter and Spring (リトル・フォレスト 冬・春), 2015

If you’re a foodie with a hankering for snowy landscapes, then you’ll enjoy this drama set in Iwate Prefecture. Based on a popular manga, this film is the second part of a two-title franchise, set in different seasons. Ichiko, our main character, is a young woman who leaves the urban life behind and returns to a mountain town in her native Iwate to embark on a simple self-sufficient lifestyle. She continues to farm, forage, preserve, and cook in the harsh landscape of Komori, her hometown. Ichiko’s daily struggles are tangled with flashbacks of her childhood spent with her mother. Her mother has since disappeared, only communicating with her daughter via occasional letters.

Shot over an entire year, the cinematography of both titles, Winter and Spring and Summer and Autumn, honors the seasonal beauty of this remote corner of Tohoku. Little Forest is essentially a love story to Iwate, a vivid postcard of the best landscapes this region has to offer.

Cast: Ai Hashimoto, Takahiro Miura
Director: Junichi Mori

5. Departures (おくりびと), 2008

Set in the snow country of Yamagata, this movie explores a taboo topic in Japanese culture — the handling of the dead. Talented cello player, Daigo, and his wife, Mika must leave their lives behind in Tokyo to return to Daigo’s childhood home in the north. When he sees an ad for a mysterious job in the local paper, he gets the opportunity of a lifetime to become the local mortician’s assistant. But he keeps his new job well-hidden for a reason.

Yojiro Takita’s movie tackles many misconceptions viewers have about death rituals and teaches them that the process can be dignified, even elegant. Departures received high praise around the world, winning Best Foreign Language Film in 2009 at the Academy Awards and copping ten major awards including Best Picture at the Japan Academy Awards. The landscape we see in the movie: the snow, the old houses, the lifestyle led in these areas, all contribute toward the somewhat nostalgic, yet so distinctly emotional mood this movie sets.

All five films on our list celebrate the emotional resilience of the Tohoku people, people who have suffered but who continue to thrive in spite of all odds. They also reflect the toughness of the natural landscape which, beyond the tsunami, refuses to be a wasteland and continues to regenerate today.

Cast: Masahiro Motoki, Ryoko Hirosue
Director: Yojiro Takita

Text by: Suzanne Bhagan