13 February 2014

Soliton (2013)

The devastation that the Tōhoku tsunami and its aftermath wreaked on the communities on the Pacific coast of northeastern Honshu in March 2011 has been described by many observers as resembling a war zone.  In his latest experimental short film, Soliton (2013), Isamu Hirabayashi uses this motif as a metaphor to express the lingering trauma left in the wake of the tsunami.  Soliton had its international premiere this this week at the Berlinale as part of its Generation 14plus Short Film programme.

Most of the film is shot from the perspective of a man looking downwards as he walks over uneven terrain.  The man’s legs, garbed in military camouflage, move at a slow, deliberate pace.  The sound of his feet crunching as he walks is interspersed with the sounds of gunfire, high-pitched buzzing, and garbled radio noises that create the impression of a modern war zone.  It is a disorientating and unusual perspective. The lurching of the camera creates a sense of unease to the point of near nausea.

Hirabayashi denies us an establishing shot of the landscape for the first 7 minutes of this 12 minute film.  Instead, he forces us to examine the minutiae of the terrain to see the scars left by disaster: beach interrupted by corrugated tin that may once have been a roof or shed of some kind, concrete with rivulets worn into it by water, concrete interrupted by vegetation, the earth cluttered with debris.  Finally, the man's leg is freeze framed and turned into an animation of dots next to the formula for a soliton wave. 

In the world of mathematics and physics, a soliton is a self-reinforcing / non-dissipating wave that was first observed by the Scottish civil engineer John Scott Russell (learn more about solitons here and here) in a canal.  Although they are difficult to observe in mid-ocean, many speculate that a tsunami wave is an example of a naturally occurring soliton.    For me, Hirabayashi’s use of this scientific term for the title of his film brings up many of the thoughts and feelings I had as I watched the Tōhoku tsunami footage on March 11, 2011.  When one lives in coastal Japan, one is acutely aware of the theoretical threat of tsunami.  There are markers of the levels that previous tsunami reached, regular evacuation drills, tsunami and earthquake resistant shelters, and man-made tsunami barriers.  But knowing the scientific likelihood that a severe tsunami may come during one’s lifetime is not the same as the reality of the experience of the event itself.  Scientific knowledge cannot prepare an individual or a community for its physical and psychological impact.  I found myself reacting viscerally to Hirabayashi’s film as it brought up the shock I felt at the human impact of the tsunami on 3/11 all over again.  There is this wonderfully contemplative shot of the ocean as if looking down from the sky.  The deceptively calm-looking ocean gives no hint in that moment that when the conditions are right it can wield an unimaginable, deadly force.   

The man continues to walk, through puddles and ragged earth, through thicker and thicker piles of debris littered with the signs of lives destroyed including a lone tatami mat, a single shoe, an open photo album, a child’s doll.  The walk continues until the man encounters the feet of a child in shoes with a heart pattern on them holding a stuffed toy (the Berlinale description of the film differs from the screener that I saw – I noticed no black and white in the opening and they also describe the girl as being barefoot). The man stops and places the shovel we did not see he was carrying until now gently into the sand, suggesting that he is part of the recovery effort. 

In case any spectators were uncertain as to the setting of this film, the closing credits make it clear with a series of still images of buildings destroyed by the Tōhoku tsunami.  The text of the closing credits are artfully shaped around these monuments to lives once lived.  The images chosen for the closing credits reminded me of the Hiroshima Peace Memorial (Genbaku Dome) – the skeletal remains of the Hiroshima Prefectural Industrial Promotion Hall destroyed by the A-bomb.  These shells of buildings are poignant symbols of humanity's frailty:  for all of our technological advances, we have still so much to learn.  The emotional impact of Soliton’s imagery is heightened by the excellent music of Takashi Watanabe – a long-time Hirabayashi collaborator.

Many short film fans will be familiar with Hirabayashi’s Noburo Ofuji Award winning animation 663114 (2011), which tackled the long-term consequences to the environment due to the nuclear disaster that came on the heels of the tsunami.  Soliton continues Hirabayashi’s consideration of the impact of these events but from a new and unique point-of-view.  Definitely keep an eye out for Soliton at international festivals in the coming year.  It is the kind of film that will affect you on more than one sensory level.  If you are unfamiliar with Hirabayashi’s experimental work, I recommend checking out his YouTube channelA Story Constructed of 17 Pieces of Space and 1 Maggot (2007) is a personal favourite of mine.  663114 appears on the DVD/BD L'Animation indépendante japonaise - Volume 1

Catherine Munroe Hotes 2014