Pray for Japan (a J!-ENT Movie Review by Dennis A. Amith)

March 6, 2012 by  

 “Pray for Japan” is about moving forward from tragedy. It’s about the people who lost their homes, their jobs and those who lost family members and their friends but yet are determined to rebuild, to keep living and doing all they can to bring normalcy into their lives once again.  Full of inspiration and hope, Stuart Levy’s “Pray for Japan” is a documentary that is highly recommended!

Pray for Japan

Directed by Stuart J. Levy

Poetry Written by Ryoichi Wago

Produced by Stuart J. Levy

Music by Shinya Mizoguchi

Cinematography by Stuart J. Levy

Edited by Emiko Kagawa, Susumu Kimura, Nobuo Mita, Noriko Miyakawa


Kyoka Suzuki (Poetry Reader)

Hiryoki Abe

Najeeb Ullah Ayaz

Shu Chiba

Manabu Endo

Kento Ito

Shuki Ito

Tsukasa Kurosawa

Mitsunori Monma

Anees Ahmad Nadeem

Hideo Otsuki

Junichi Sato

Chieko Seto

Yoshiaki Shoji

Seiji Yoshimura

On March 11, 2011, Japan’s Tohoku coastal region was destroyed by a 9.0 magnitude earthquake and devastating tsunami that followed.  PRAY FOR JAPAN takes place in the devastated region of Ishinomaki, Miyagi – the largest coastal city in Tohoku with a population of over 160,000 people. Filmmaker Stu Levy – an American living in Japan – filmed the tsunami aftermath during his trips to Tohoku as a volunteer and over a period of 6 weeks, captured over 50 hours of footage.

PRAY FOR JAPAN focuses on four key perspectives of the tragedy – School, Shelter, Family, and Volunteers. With each perspective we meet victims who faced significant obstacles and fought to overcome them. Through these four vantage points, the audience is able to understand the vast ramifications of this large-scale natural disaster – and the battle these real-life heroes fought on behalf of their loved ones and their hometown.

Losing loved ones cuts emotional scars which run deep.

We can help heal these wounds by paying tribute to the amazing resilience and quiet spirit of the many victims and volunteers of Tohoku. By letting them know we admire and respect them, we encourage them to continue the good fight – at a time when even the strongest warriors would grow weary. We also gain insight into how our own inner strength can help us if we ever find ourselves in a life-threatening situation.

We can all learn from these incredible heroes!

     On March 11, 2011, a magnitude 9.0 earthquake hit the coast of Japan and was one of the top 5 most powerful earthquakes ever recorded.

The earthquake triggered a powerful tsunami with waves reaching as high as 135 ft. and triggered a level 7 nuclear meltdown.  The Japanese National Police Agency confirmed the deaths of 15,850 people and 3,287 remain missing.

The day of the tragedy in Japan, Stuart J. Levy posted on his Facebook account about the huge earthquake he felt in Tokyo and how the entire place was shaking.  Many people would follow his Facebook account to see what was the status in Japan, it also helped that among the well-known people in Japan that can communicate in English, Levy’s Facebook page was followed by many.

But who is Stuart Levy?

Stuart Levy was best known as the founder and CEO of the media company Tokyo Pop.  Known for providing manga (Japanese comic books), anime (Japanese animation) to the United States, his shows that were broadcast on the Cartoon Network, Showtime, G4 and were also released on DVD.

Levy is also known for writing manga graphic novels and children’s books, composing music for Tokyo Pop projects and also distributing programming through the web and via mobile.  But he is well-known as being one of the people who was instrumental in bringing Japanese pop culture to America.

On March 16th, five days after the “Great Tohoku Earthquake”, Stu posted a message on Facebook that he would be heading up to Sendai to bring rice, gasoline and supplies in order to provide aid to the earthquake victims.  Levy is a volunteer for the non-profit organization, JEN (Japan Emergency Network).  JEN was among the first to reach the region after the earthquake and tsunami hit.

In two days of spending time in Sendai, Levy posted photos and video images on his Facebook account of the devastation. And when he returned back to Tokyo, he wrote about how he was inspired by the victims that he met at the emergency shelters.  You can tell through his messages that he was deeply affected by what he had seen, but also the emotions coming from the Japanese victims and also the volunteers in the area.  While there was despair, he also saw the vitality and hope of the Japanese people and it was enough for him to want to document what he saw and share it with a larger audience.

Continuing his volunteer efforts for JEN, Levy took his Canon 5D Mark II and along with supplies, he returned to the Tohoku region on April 2nd, where he would capture the volunteer and rebuilding effort of the Japanese people and by April 6th, nearly a month after the earthquake and tsunami disaster, Levy would capture these inspiring footage of the Japanese people and also volunteers from all over the world, coming together and helping in whatever way they can.

This footage would become Levy’s latest film project known as “Pray for Japan”, a project that would take 6 weeks and Levy capturing over 50 hours of footage.

It was important for Levy to let people know that although time has past since the earthquake and tsunami disaster, 90,000 people still live in shelters with 650,000 people having lost their livelihood.  Loved ones, homes, jobs, possessions were lost but with “Pray for Japan”, it’s a film that not only makes us see how challenging it was during the relief efforts in Japan but how a country and spirits of the Japanese people came together and to this day, are doing all they can to rebuild their hometown.

“Pray for Japan” focuses on four key perspectives of the tragedy – School, Shelter, Family and Volunteers.  Through these four perspectives, Levy wanted an audience to understand the ramifications of this natural disaster but also the battle the real-life heroes who have fought on behalf of their loved ones and their hometown.

And while the film was screened in Japan back in March 2012, the film is still screening at colleges and various film festivals.

The profit that would made from the screenings of “Pray for Japan” would be donated to the non-profit organization JEN, who have provided food, mud removal, debris removal and provisions delivery in the affected region during the emergency phase since day one and now focusing on recovery efforts which include the rebuilding of crucial industries such as fishing and farming.  And also helping the victims from post-traumatic stress disorder.

“Pray for Japan” interviews many victims, evacuees young and old from the region.  Also interviews with volunteers (of different ethnicities) who came to the area from different parts of Japan (and the world) to provide support.  Through the haunting and heartbreaking images and video of the devastation, actress Kyoka Suzuki reads the poetry of Ryoichi Wago.

For the “School” segment, at Ogatsu Middle School, school principal Junichi Sato would talks about how it was graduation day on March 11th.  Many children had left school to go back home around 1:30 p.m., the earthquake would hit the region an hour and a fifteen minutes later, followed by the tsunami a half hour after the earthquake.

Ogatsu was one of the cities that was destroyed by the earthquake and tsunami but because there have been emergency programs that taught people to go to an evacuation center at a nearby park, it was a major factor in the survival of many of the students.  Also, luck was on their side because if it was a regular school day, the students at Ogatsu Middle School would have been gathered together for roll call and if that did happen, there would be no time for evacuation.

So, we learn about the experience through Junichi Sato and the teachers of what they did on the day the disaster happened but also revisiting the school weeks later to see if any supplies could be salvaged and most importantly, the importance of keeping the hope alive for the young children who lost their family.  Despite their school being destroyed, it was important to find a new location where children can be with friends and help them during this troubled time in their lives.

And we watch to see this process taking place.

For the “Shelter” segment of the film, the segment is set at the Minato Shogakkou shelter.  We learned how shelter organizers had to make important decisions as many people were hungry and despite having food, it was not enough to feed everyone.  Do you give people the food and let others not have any?  Organizers stayed firm and making sure that everyone at the shelter would be fed instead of only a partial group.

And with workers knowing that roads were blocked, gas was scarce,  the support of food and supplies arriving at shelters (as there were many of them) would take a few days and thus they did all they can to feed everyone that was on the list as “high priority”, while those who were healthy did not eat for three days.

Through this segment, we also see the generosity of volunteers and non-profit groups who came to bring food to the shelter.  From the Self-Defense Force providing support, we also see a Pakistani group who came far to bring food and would cook Indian food to the evacuees.  This group helped people during the Kobe earthquake and once again were there to help people at the Minato Shogakkou Shelter.

And we see first hand of the generosity of the Japanese people of others who were not Japanese coming to their aid.

We also  learn about the things that happened at the shelters in order to keep families especially the children active.

For the “family” segment, we meet family members who lost love ones due to the tragedy.  One of those people is teenager Kento Ito who was away in Sendai with his band Gigantes to perform at a gig.  The earthquake hit during his rehearsal and he tried his best to reach his family but there were no cell phone coverage during that time.

By the time Kento reached his home at Omagari-cho, Higashi-Matsushima, he found his home destroyed.  While looking at shelters to find out if his family survived, he found out his father and brother Hiromu survived and was staying at a cousin’s home.

But we get to see Kento talk about what happened when he went to check on his mother, grandparents and his little brother in the morgue.

Through Kento’s story, we learn of how he experienced survivor’s remorse.  How he went through a stage of wishing he was the one that was killed but eventually took a step forward in wanting to make sure that children who were affected by the disaster were given their proper respects by a special memorial held on May 5th (Kodomo no Hi, “Children’s Day”).

We see what Kento and others have done in order to pay their respects to the departed.

For “Volunteers”, we see the rebuilding process take place in the devastated areas. For the film, the area for volunteer support is focused in the Ishinomaki area.

Many people who lost their homes, their family and their jobs but these individuals knew they must take the initiative to help people in their town.  From the establishment of a headquarters, to create a structure for the volunteers to assist the 60,000 evacuees by managing shelters, delivering provisions and finding ways to do this despite gasoline being scarce.

Through this segment, we learn how these volunteers (from all over Japan and also around the world) were instrumental in trying to find ways of communicating and helping shelters that were not receiving food.  But also the challenge of clearing out debris, mud,  also removing vehicles and metal that were thrown into the ocean and more.


“Pray for Japan” is an amazing documentary that inspires you.  It’s a film that shows audiences the spirit of the Japanese people who have been hit hard with this tragedy but yet have managed to stay on their two feet and are determined and resilient in the rebuilding process.

There is no doubt that this is the largest devastation that Japan has faced since the Kobe Earthquake and World War II, but as one volunteer said, the people of Japan must take action and in this film, we are seeing how the country has united, the people of the Eastern area of Japan are doing all they can to bring normalcy back to their city but they also know the reality that this is not going to be quick, it’s going to take time.

They know that pain and hardship lies in front of them but yet, through their amazing human spirit, they are working together to clean up and rebuild their city.

This film was released on the first anniversary of the Great Tohoku Earthquake. We have all seen the images of the earthquake causing fear in Japan, the tsunami waves rushing into the towns and seeing many who were unable to escape the incoming waves.  We have seen images and video of devastation that are unimaginable.  Large ships on top of two or three story houses, cars thrown around all over the place and the stories of heartbreak and pain.

But that was a year ago.

Yes, I know the pain is still there.  The people of those devastated areas will continue to see wreckage and areas where homes and buildings once were and are now dirt lots.  But this film is about moving forward and not being stuck or being down.

The cleanup still continues, many people are without homes and no place to work, many people who are still trying to survive and thus its important to get this region known for its farming and fishing back to their feet.

The Japanese people must keep living and moving forward.  Not only for their city and the victims but also for the younger generation who need all the hope they can get during this tough time.
And this is what Stuart Levy’s “Pray for Japan” documentary is all about.  Hope.  And seeing how these Japanese people are doing all they can to bring normalcy back into their lives one step at a time.

What you see in this film, is really in-depth as the leaders of the city are quite frank about their situation but they are full of hope because they put their belief in the people.

They are also realists when it came to answering questions how things will be a year later.  There was no sugarcoating the situation, these individuals knew it will be a difficult road and these challenges were not going to be fixed within a year’s time.  But they had to believe in each other and supporting each other in rebuilding and instilling hope to those affected by the disaster.  They don’t know what’s going to happen but they know they must stay optimistic.

And as we have seen the power of the human spirit of the Japanese people, we have seen the human spirit of the volunteers of different ethnicities.  Those who came from far areas in Japan to those who came from all over the world.

Najeeb Ullah Ayaz of the Pakistani group providing food to a shelter left his family including a newborn daughter of 3 days to help those affected in the earthquake and no matter how difficult it was, he knew the importance of being there at the shelter and helping these people in need.

We also see the human spirit put to the test.  For 18-year-old Kento, this teenager lost his home and continues to struggle because not all of his family members have survived.  But he is determined to keep the memory of not only his little brother but other children alive.

I found Kento’s story very inspirational.  One day while going through the wreckage of his home, he came upon a koi-nobori (a kite that is hung up during the month of May) and he knew how much it made his younger brother Ritsu happy when they hung it up.  So, to keep his brother’s memory alive, he not only wanted to hang the koi-nobori up as a memorial for Ritsu but also for the other children who died that day.   So, Japanese from all over the country donated 200 blue koi-nobori, he and other volunteers hung them up on May 5th, during Kodomo no Hi (“Children’s Day”) as a memorial service.

This visual scene was inspiring!. How one young man took tragedy and used his sadness, and converting it to a positive in honor of his family to help inspire others and bring something positive to his hometown and to families who have lost young loved ones.  Incredible!

“Pray for Japan” is a special film that shows us the efforts of local volunteers and non-profit organizations.   It focuses on the Minato Shogakkou shelter and the Ogatsu Middle School, having worked with the Japanese and covering Japanese culture for the last two decades, I have no doubt in my mind that the Japanese spirit that we see from these volunteers is just as vibrant and full of hope in other shelters and regions that were affected.

As for the technical aspects of the film, the US release of the film is subtitled in English with a transparent black bar behind it, so subtitles are easy to read.

The video quality is very good and was pretty impressed with what Levy was able to accomplish with the Canon 5D Mark II and the final result after color correction, especially the contrast choices used during the interviews.    Editing was-well done and it never gets dizzying, especially while he was driving by areas and filming the devastation.  But he managed to capture genuine emotions of the people interviewed.

Overall, “Pray for Japan” is a wonderful film that inspires and provides hope.  To see how people who have suffered the worst can still move forward and together overcome tragedy.   The film captures the positive spirit of humanity and people of different cultures coming together and providing hope.

It’s important to emphasize that this is not a film about the destruction that occurred, “Pray for Japan” is about moving forward from tragedy. It’s about the people who lost their homes, their jobs and those who lost family members and their friends but yet are determined to rebuild, to keep living and doing all they can to bring normalcy into their lives once again.

Full of inspiration and hope, Stuart Levy’s “Pray for Japan” is highly recommended!

Note: “Pray For Japan” is screening at various film festivals including college screenings around the world.  For more information on upcoming screenings or are interested in screening the film at your event, please visit:


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