When filmmaker Stu Levy flew from Los Angeles to Tokyo on March 9, 2011, he had no idea that he would return with close-up footage of one of the worst natural disasters in living memory. The resulting Japanese-language documentary, "Pray for Japan," is currently playing in AMC theaters stateside and showed at this week’s Okinawa International Movie Festival.
Levy was heading for Japan to tell his business associates the sad news that he had closed down U.S. operations on TOKYOPOP, his 15-year-old Manga publishing-and-production company. “Borders owed me a lot of money,” he said. “It closed down and I just couldn't pay anyone after that.”
Two days later, the first earthquake struck during a conference call to Australia. Levy kept talking. “I’m from Los Angeles. I kind of ignored it,” he said. When the second quake hit, it was time to hang up. Everyone huddled indoors.
The filmmaker watched events unfold from the relative safety of his Tokyo TV. But like many in Japan, he had holidayed in the coastal areas where the tsunami hit hardest. "All of a sudden, I was watching it all being swept away," he recalls. "It was unfathomable. But the first thing I thought was that we have to help. So I made contact with my friends and said, 'we have to go.'”
His friends “flaked,” but Levy soon connected with a non-profit and was on his way, he said. “We drove up with gasoline and provisions. There was no idea of a film. There was a lot that touched me about how the people were behaving up there, that special Japanese spirit of helping people out and not being so selfish and 'what about me,' like it is in our part of the world."
He was also shocked by what he saw. “The imagery is something that you can’t ignore,” he said. “These people had lost everything. It was freezing cold. It was worse than camping. There were old photos and debris everywhere and cars in the trees. You couldn’t create a movie set like that. Production managers would say, 'you're faking it, this is too extreme.'”
As word spread of the Fukushima radiation threat, all volunteers were ordered to leave. “The NGO found out from the French Embassy that they were pulling out, and they pulled us out and we had no choice,” he said. “It was so sad. None of us wanted to leave. We felt terrible.”
Back in Tokyo, Levy returned to deal with his production company for a few weeks. But he soon headed back North with an Osaka butcher friend. "We went up with all this meat and did a soup kitchen. That’s when we met a local guy. He said, 'you should make a documentary about this.'”
"Wouldn’t it be rude?" Levy asked him. "He said, 'in this moment helping is urgent, but for the future for our children it is important to remember what happened.'”
A friend offered to match whatever money he put in. When all the cameramen was booked to cover the tragedy, Levy did the camerawork himself. Between filming, he continued to do what he could to help. “I couldn't just stand there and film,” he said.
Levy was moved to see the "real impact on many in the audience" of “Pray for Japan” at the Okinawa Film Festival.
TOKYOPOP is continuing its international operations.