On March 11, 2011 Stu Levy was sitting in his Tokyo apartment Skyping a business call to Australia. The founder of TokyoPop, the major US importer of manga–Japanese comic books–Stu was instrumental in the huge wave of Japanese street and youth culture which flooded America. Soon he would confront the devastating results of another far more lethal flood.
Stu’s business empire was teetering: Borders–TokyoPop’s main retail distributor–had just declared bankruptcy, stranding TokyoPop with a million dollars in unpaid, uncollectible debt. When the earthquake struck, Stu sat firm at his computer screen, until paintings began to fall to the floor. Seeing the quake and subsequent tsunami’s aftermath on Facebook and via Twitter put him into action.
Stu mobilized to volunteer, traveling with a group bringing food and gasoline to a shelter serving 1,000 people, where the volunteers put together a soup kitchen to feed the refugees their first hot meal since the quake. A subsequent trip took him to Ishinomaki, on the Tohoku coast, where over 3,000 people in a city of 165,000 had been killed, with over 2,700 unaccounted for, and another 30,000 displaced.
A local who knew of Stu’s reputation–Ishinomaki is home to a manga museum–asked him to film a documentary, and though at first reluctant, he picked up a camera and filmed between his hands-on volunteering. A year later, with the help of an amazing grassroots promotion due in a large part to Michelle Klein-Hass, who with Stu, is our guest tonight. Pray for Japan opened for a week long run in New York and Los Angeles, qualifying it for Oscar consideration, and more importantly showing the world the spirit and cooperation of a people whose lives had been destroyed in a matter of minutes.
Pray for Japan delves into the personal stories of victims and volunteers, highlighting four perspectives: School, Shelter, Family, and Volunteers; meeting victims and those who work tirelessly to assist them–from providing food and clearing away wreckage to building traditional hot baths, so a centuries old tradition can return to the displaced. Duty and sorrow are stressed by everyone–from the Pakistani volunteers living in Japan who pitch in, to an art teacher whose students all survive who finds remnants of class projects in the ruins of the destroyed school building. On Children’s Day, a young rock musician hangs banners in honor of his five-year old brother who was killed along with his mother and grandparents.
Throughout this strong, gentle, moving, and inspiring film, I couldn’t help but wonder: Would Americans react in the same way to a disaster of this scope? Would we be willing to forgo food ourselves because what was delivered was only enough to feed a third of the people in our shelter? Would thousands travel by bus to haul away debris and cook in shelters? I hope we never have to find out, but I hope we too have that sense expressed by Fukushima poet Ryoichi Wago whose words form the narration in Pray for Japan:
What does your hometown mean to you?…I won’t give up on my hometown