Movie Review - 'Pray For Japan' A documentary filmed by an American living in Japan chronicles the immediate aftermath of the 2011 earthquake and tsunami. Critic Mark Jenkins says the film doesn't reach for emotional complexity, but its well-meaning, sentimental approach fits its subject matter.
NPR logo 'Pray For Japan': Sorrow, Resilience, Rebuilding



'Pray For Japan': Sorrow, Resilience, Rebuilding

High-school student Kento Ito (right) and friends prepare for a Children's Day ceremony honoring Kento's little brother, Ritsu-kun, and others who perished in the Tohoku earthquake and tsunami of March 2011. PrayForJapanNetwork hide caption

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Pray For Japan

  • Director: Stu Levy
  • Genre: Documentary
  • Running Time: 97 minutes

Not rated; images of death and destruction

Language: Japanese with subtitles, English

Watch Clips

From 'Pray For Japan' - 'Shelter Volunteer'

'Shelter Volunteer'

From 'Pray For Japan' - 'City Center'

'City Center'

From 'Pray For Japan' - 'Not Enough Food'

'Not Enough Food'

Among the foreign-born residents of Japan who headed north to volunteer after the Tohoku earthquake and tsunami was Stu Levy, an L.A. pop-culture entrepreneur who lives part-time in Tokyo. When not ladling soup or toting rice sacks, the man who brought Sailor Moon to American girls videotaped the survivors and volunteers.

Edited, scored and outfitted with brief animated sequences, Levy's footage became Pray for Japan, a documentary that should appeal mostly to people with a particular interest in the subject. The movie is less than incisive, but it's utterly well-meaning.

The film opens with a quick summary of March 11, 2011's catastrophic events: a magnitude-9.0 earthquake, rampaging waves as high as 124 feet and some 19,000 people dead or missing. (The subsequent crisis at the nearby Fukushima nuclear plant doesn't get much play here.) Then the focus tightens to Ishinomaki, the largest coastal city hit by the tsunami and the place where the director did his volunteer work.

Manga and anime seem to have considerably shaped Levy's worldview. The film is sad, sweet and shallow, with lots of Japanese-style exhortations to be strong and do your best. Periodically, a female narrator recites poetry that probably reads better in the original language than in English subtitles.

If the movie's tone is a little sappy, that's hardly inappropriate. Sorrow and resilience are the common bond of the major characters. These include an art teacher at Ogatsu Middle School whose building was destroyed, but whose students all luckily survived; two Pakistan-bred volunteers who live in central Japan and speak credible Japanese; and a high-school senior and musician who missed the tsunami because he was at an out-of-town gig.

The high-schooler, Kento Ito, has the most wrenching story: His grandparents, mother and 5-year-old brother all perished. (His father and other brother are alive.) Yet by the film's end, Ito is busy stringing up carp-shaped windsocks in celebration of Children's Day. It's a gesture in memory of his lost little brother, but also an expression of the stoicism that is commended throughout the movie.

Not surprisingly, the volunteers who speak English express a more pragmatic outlook. One interviewee tells the camera that the disaster should prompt an improvement in the region's "strategic planning."

At Ogatsu Middle School's new temporary quarters, however, the emphasis is on morale, not strategy. At the beginning of the new school year, the principal announces the new school slogan: "Live tough."