Production, part 2: Initial Volunteer Work
When the 9.0 earthquake hit, Stu was on the 49th floor of a building in Tokyo. It swayed like a sailboat in a storm — scary for everyone in Tokyo, but nothing compared to how the full force of the quake or the tsunami that was about to hit 30 minutes later felt for the people of the afffected region. Mobile phones weren’t working, so Stu and others communicated via the Internet (Skype, Twitter, Facebook, email). Once NHK started showing the horrible reality of the tsunami in Tohoku, no one could believe it. Stu decided right then to get up north and help any way he could.
Stu was desperate to find a way up to Tohoku but it wasn’t working out – all the roads, trains and airports were shut down. As fate would have it, Stu’s great friend Naoji connected him with Komatsu-san who was already working with non-profit organization JEN. JEN had begun transporting provisions and needed an extra pair of hands for the next trip on March 14. Stu jumped at the chance, packed very light and waited for the call. It came – and soon Shida-san and Stu were transporting gasoline, vegetables and 1.2 tons of rice up to Miyagi, Tohoku. After a full day of driving on the “emergency vehicles only” road, the two made it to Rikuzen Takasago Middle School in Sendai. In the snow, they delivered the provisions to over 1000 victims staying in the shelter, who appreciated their first hot bowl of rice that night. Inaugural mission accomplished!
Shida-san knew what he was doing; Stu didn’t, so he just followed Shida-san’s commands. But the experience was life-changing and the victims were awe-inspiring. When Stu returned to Tokyo after that first trip, he put out a call to the world requesting letters, artwork and photos for the children of Takasago and the rest of Tohoku.
Hundreds of letters and packages arrived – Stu was overwhelmed. Clearly, the world was behind Japan, praying for them. “Pray for Japan” was not just a Twitter meme but the true feelings of people worldwide.
(Photos: letters sent from all over the world; Stu and Waki-san going through letters for the children of Tohoku).
On the next trip, Stu’s great friend Naoji Takeda and his family’s Takefuku shop donated 5000 high-grade hamburg steak patties to the victims, and everyone went up to do a massive soup kitchen project in Ishinomaki, Miyagi. The damage in Ishinomaki was horrific, as it was up and down the Sanriku coastline.
Stu’s buddy Ray Klein also joined the soup kitchen effort. The team spend the entire day preparing, cooking, and serving the gourmet beef – and the victims truly enjoyed the treat.
It was during that trip that Stu met Endo-san, a local victim who was devoting all his time to his community and helping others. With Endo-san were local volunteer leaders such as Abe-san, Monma-san, Yokota-san, and the M’s Japan Orchestra musicians – everyone pitched in to help with the Ishinomaki soup kitchen.
Stu and Endo-san spoke for awhile, during which Endo-san learned of Stu’s background in film. He suggested that Stu film a documentary about what was happening on the ground in Tohoku. Stu wasn’t so sure – wouldn’t it be invasive to the victims? Doesn’t everyone have enough to worry about, let alone be bothered by interviews? Besides, NHK was doing a great job. But Endo-san explained that Stu’s perspective would be unique – and that the television crews don’t always catch the nuances of the story.
The following night, on their ride back to Tokyo, Stu and Ray discussed the documentary topic. A lot was changing rapidly in Stu’s life – he was dealing with shutting down the once-thriving Los Angeles office of his company TOKYOPOP. But this gave Stu perspective on what’s really important in life – and Ray encouraged him by offering to fund half the production, matching Stu’s personal donation. Stu made the decision – he’d put together a team and head back to Tohoku to film. Ray cautioned him: he’d better hurry, the recovery had already begun. Stu agreed, and upon his return to Tokyo, called up his good friend Nori Waki, who had previously helped film projects in Japan with Stu, such as Van Von Hunter and America’s Greatest Otaku. Waki-san agreed to join Stu on the ground for 3 weeks, reshuffling his schedule. Stu grabbed his Canon 5D, picked up a small Zacuto rig and some sound equipment, then the two rented an old beat-up Prius, (gas was scarce) coordinated with JEN, and headed back up north in early April.