Takayuki Ueno continues his search for his eldest son Kotaro and other missing people in Minami-Soma, Fukushima Prefecture.
June 13, 2018
A documentary about a farmer’s years-long quest to retrieve the bodies of four family members killed in the 2011 earthquake and tsunami disaster has won an award that honors a slain journalist.
The Mika Yamamoto International Journalist Award was presented to Chiaki Kasai in Tokyo on May 26 for her “Life–Another Story of Fukushima,” which was completed last year.
The prize was established to perpetuate the spirit of video journalist Mika Yamamoto, who died while covering the civil war in Syria in 2012.
Kasai’s 115-minute documentary charts the struggles of 45-year-old Takayuki Ueno as he tries to rise from the depths of despair over the loss of his two children as well as his parents, who were swept away by tsunami generated by the magnitude-9.0 Great East Japan Earthquake.
Kasai’s story takes place in Fukushima Prefecture, where the Fukushima No. 1 nuclear power plant went into a triple meltdown when the facility’s cooling system was knocked out in the quake and tsunami. It takes place over a number of years.
Ueno lived in the city of Minami-Soma, which was hard-hit by the tsunami.
Ueno had just begun searching for his loved ones when hydrogen explosions rocked the nuclear plant, just 22 kilometers away.
Despite radioactive substances spewing from the stricken plant operated by Tokyo Electric Power Co., Ueno refused to evacuate. No police or Self-Defense Forces members were coming to rescue him or others stranded in the area.
Ueno found the body of his 8-year-old daughter Erika caked in mud and carried her to a makeshift morgue.
He, along with volunteers, still searches for the body of his son Kotaro, 3, as well as others swept away by the tsunami.
At the time, Kasai, 43, worked for a Hamamatsu-based TV station. She spent the best part of five and a half years documenting Ueno’s life. She completed the project in January 2017, and it was first shown the following May.
Six months after the disaster, Kasai visited Fukushima Prefecture, where she heard about Ueno’s family tragedy and realized that many people were unable to search for missing family members because of the nuclear accident.
“I was disappointed with myself,” Kasai said. “I asked myself what we were doing when we fussed about whether or not we should venture several kilometers nearer to the plant.”
Kasai quit the TV station in 2015 so she could devote herself to the documentary and spend more time visiting devastated areas.
Yamamoto, the journalist who perished in a gun battle while covering the fighting in the Syrian city of Aleppo, had made a name for herself covering Afghanistan, Iraq and other war zones around the world. She was 43 when she died.
The award was established in 2013 as a way to encourage news gathering on people living in conflict or impoverished areas to raise awareness of their plight.
The award is given to journalists who cover people living in extreme conditions. Each award-winning work to date was a record of a conflict being waged away from Japan.
“Wars and disasters. There are people who hang in there, no matter what unreasonable things are thrown at them in life.
(Kasai’s) approach to taking time to present her story honestly and in a respectful manner overlapped with Yamamoto’s footsteps,” said Akihiro Nonaka, head of Asia Press International, who served as a member of the award’s selection committee, explaining the decision to choose a work themed on disaster this year.
One scene in the documentary shows Ueno weeping and muttering that he “can’t remember” the sound of his children’s voices.
He later confesses that he is “scared” to see his eldest daughter’s classmates all grown up. Still, encouraged by how his 6-year-old second daughter Sarii, who was born in 2011, is managing, Ueno tries to stay on top of things while continuing to search for his missing loved ones.
A scene toward the end of the film shows Erika’s former classmates dressed in their junior high school uniforms visit Ueno’s home to pray in front of the family’s Buddhist altar. Ueno and his wife Kiho, 41, see the girls off as they leave, soft smiles creasing the couple’s faces. The title of the film clearly resonates with the audience.
Learning that she had won the award, Kasai expressed sadness rather than happiness as Yamamoto is no longer alive, recalling that they once shared a meal together.
“I feel like she gave me a supportive push to keep telling the world what happened in Fukushima,” she said.
Ueno commented that he hoped the documentary would serve as a warning not to allow a similar event to occur again.