L.A. man makes tsunami recovery documentary, 'Pray for Japan'
In early March 2011, Stu Levy was in the midst of a career meltdown. His 14-year-old company, TokyoPop, an L.A.-based importer and distributor of Japanese manga and anime, was in dire straits. Borders bookstores, one of his company’s premier retailers, was in bankruptcy and owed TokyoPop close to $1 million –- and Borders wasn’t paying.
Levy was in Tokyo, making amends with his Japanese suppliers, when the giant earthquake, tsunami and nuclear crisis struck. Within days, he was making his way northeast, driving up the coast with a friend past increasingly tattered landscapes to volunteer for the recovery efforts.
“I didn’t even think about it,” Levy, 45, said. “I had to do something. Doing nothing was intolerable.”
Along the way, Levy was stunned by the vast amounts of mud and absurd sights amid the wreckage. The sludge “had spread across the landscape, poured into buildings and across the pavement,” he recalled.
Adjacent to one stretch of highway en route to the battered city of Sendai, the only meeting point for non-government volunteers at the time, he came upon masses of beer cans fanning out across fields. A nearby Kirin factory had been hit by the waves of the tsunami and disgorged its contents.
In chilly Sendai, he slept in cars with other volunteers. He was accepted by a local volunteer group called JEN, which stands for Japan’s Emergency NGOs. “They let me contribute,” he said, “which is all I could ask of them then.”
JEN moved its volunteers to the coastal town of Ishinomaki, some 200 miles north of Tokyo, where needs were more urgent. Ishinomaki is a city of about 160,000; 3,000 locals died in the disaster, and tens of thousands were left homeless. The disaster left the town without its primary economic engines, fishing and farming. Levy pitched in hefting boxes and shoveling mud.
“Maybe it was cathartic,” Levy said. “When you lead a company, you feel needed. When your company fails, you feel lonely. Maybe I volunteered in Ishinomaki partly to feel needed again.”
Locals learned that Levy was an amateur photographer, and one of them asked him to record their efforts on film, so that the residents’ children would understand the work their parents had done to survive. Levy, who also has experience with film and TV production (he served as an executive producer on the 2011 Sony Screen Gems film “Priest” and created a Hulu TV show, among other projects) decided then he could do something bigger: create a documentary that could raise money to support recovery efforts.
Over six weeks between April and August last year, he recorded footage in Japan, allowing locals -- teachers, students, politicians -- as well as foreign volunteers, to tell their own stories. He talked to musicians, animators and others (American and Japanese) into working on the film without pay. The result is “Pray for Japan,” which will play Wednesday night in more than a dozen cities and will have a one-week engagement in AMC theaters in New York and Los Angeles starting Friday. Proceeds will go to JEN.
The tales of the survivors are moving. There’s Kento Ito, a high school senior who lost his young brother, mother and grandparents, picking through the rubble of his family home. And Yoshiaki Shoji, a local volunteer leader, who recalls on camera his difficult decision to withhold a donation of rice balls from hungry evacuees at a shelter, because there were not enough to serve everyone. “Giving some to some people and nothing to others would be unfair” and cause problems, he said. Eventually, he said, they were able to give every evacuee at his center half a ball.
Levy brought his film to Ishinomaki last week and showed it to residents. One 52-year-old man, surnamed Ono, said he was surprised by the results. “I thought that a film about volunteering would be boring,” he said, “because volunteering is basically boring. But this is full of many different people, and tells their stories. It’s inspiring, and sometimes, it even feels fun.”
-- Roland Kelts, reporting from Ishinomaki, Japan
Photo: "Pray for Japan" director Stu Levy works on his documentary project.