In 2011, I was sitting in my partner’s basement apartment when he told me that a magnitude 6.6 earthquake had struck off the coast of Japan. In the following hours and days, I tearfully called people from all over Japan and the world, trying to make sure my loved ones were alright; that they were alive. My good friend lost her grandfather in the tsunami. Others lost their homes. It’s unsurprising, then, that I was apprehensive about seeing Fukushima mon Amour by Doris Dörrie (Cherry Blossoms, Am I Beautiful?) at the German Film Festival in Auckland.
Fukushima mon Amour is an exploration of trauma, companionship, culture, femininity and closure. It follows Marie (Rosalie Thomass) to the disaster ravaged Fukushima where she joins a small troupe of clowns called Clowns4Help. Her aim is to provide respite to the almost exclusively elderly population who remain there. Satomi (Kaori Momoi, Memoirs of a Geisha), an elderly Geisha, coaxes Marie into taking her back to her tsunami-wrecked home near the shore. Together, they learn to ward off both literal and metaphorical ghosts in order to get on with their lives.
The film, much like its German protagonist, comes across as incredibly forthright. It opens with an extreme close-up of Marie’s lips as she whispers questions of self-doubt and self-loathing. I immediately knew that as an anxiety-stricken, Swiss/Pakeha, twenty-something-year-old woman, I was the target audience. I was worried about how the film might compare the widespread collective trauma of the disaster, with the existential dread suffered by privileged white women. I think Dörrie did this on purpose because by the end of the film I was in tears.
Although the film was in black-and-white, I have vivid memories of Satomi’s emerald tea set and the red flowers on Marie’s dress. Maybe it’s because our senses overcompensate when others are dulled. Somewhere in the howl of the wind, or the gentle rustling of Satomi’s clothes, I remember most of the film in full color. The true vibrancy of the film was in the complexity of its relationships. It’s easy to see Satomi’s disdain for Marie’s unkempt ways. Marie tells Satomi she is “elegant” and Satomi retorts, saying Marie is an “elephant”. Yet, by candle light, on the hard tatami floor, Satomi reaches out and takes Marie’s hand as she falls asleep. In black and white, it would have been much easier to create a binary between the two.
At its essence, Fukushima mon Amour is not just about loss and trauma, but also about coping with the blame we put on ourselves and others. For Marie, this means facing what she has lost in her relationships back home. For Satomi, this means facing the loss of her apprentice – Yuki. For Japan, it might mean facing their own losses too.
I have a friend who lives in Kyoto – some 500 kilometers away from Fukushima. He has no family in Fukushima – no relation to the city at all. Yet still, he has “3/11” tattooed on his right hand. By exploring both the deeply personal and overtly political, Dörrie confronts us with the fact that trauma is on all of our hands. That, as humans, we all have ghosts we have to deal with.