In the mid-afternoon of March 11, 2011, a small contingent stood on a Japanese hillside, watching in increasing despair as monstrous waves swept away every vestige of their city, turning everything before them into a brackish stew and washing away fellow residents before their eyes.
The footage they shot makes up the chilling opening scenes of The Tsunami and the Cherry Blossom, the Oscar-nominated documentary from Lucy Walker that chronicles the Great East Japan Earthquake and makes its television debut Monday, July 16 on HBO. With a magnitude of 9.0 that triggered 133-foot waves, the quake was the most powerful ever to hit Japan, killing more than 15,000 people and sparking worldwide fear of nuclear disaster from the decimated Fukushima Daiichi plant.
But this is ultimately a story of hope and renewal.
In Japan, cherry blossoms signal the arrival of spring and the promise of new beginnings. Many cherry trees miraculously survived the tsunami, and the traumatized residents take comfort in their soft pink blooms.
“Nature has a terrible destructive power,” explains one elderly resident whose family has overseen a tree nursery for more than 300 years. “Nature also has a positive, creative power. Beauty and terror always exist in nature, but we forget the terror.”
So, while Tokyo’s cherry blossom festival is canceled due to the power shortage brought on by the quake and in deference to those who perished, people of all generations still gather to walk among its riotously blooming trees.
“Cherry blossoms reflect the Japanese character,” says one. “Each flower is tiny and you don’t see them individually. But when you see many flowers together, it is beautiful. Japanese people see themselves that way, too. They are at their best when they work together.” And so we return to the hillside where the young woman who filmed those original, horrifying scenes is now snapping the slow rebuilding of her town as the branches of a cherry tree sway around her.
“I want to tell the blossoms, ‘Keep watching us,’” she says. “‘We’ll revive.’”
The Tsunami and the Cherry Blossom premieres Monday, July 16, at 9/8CT on HBO.