Eastern thinking: Philip Martin on Japan in a Day

Co-director Philip Martin discusses his new crowd-sourced anthology film Japan in a Day, documentating 24 hours of life in Japan a year after the tsunami.

Samuel Wigley

Japan in a Day is a unique and moving commemoration of the tsunami that devastated eastern Japan in March 2011. Adopting the filmmaking model innovated for Kevin Macdonald’s 2011 documentary Life in a Day (also produced by Ridley Scott’s company Scott Free), co-directors Philip Martin and Gaku Narita invited the people of Japan to pick up a camera and film their own lives a year to the day after the tragedy.

The result receives its world premiere simultaneously at the BFI London Film Festival and the Tokyo International Film Festival on Saturday 20 October at 10.00 BST, followed by a live Q&A beamed back to London from Japan. To mark the event, we caught up with Philip Martin to talk about the challenges of sifting through the masses of footage sent in for the project – and of an unusual approach to documentary-making which he says allows you to put your hand “into the stream of people’s thoughts and feelings.”

What are the challenges presented by this Life in a Day model?

It’s a new way of filmmaking. I’m a director, I directed with another director – we have a way of looking at the world, we have things we’re interested in as filmmakers but we’re also making the film with the audience. You’re half in control and half not in control, and in a way that’s what’s really appealing about it. You have to respond to what’s there: you can’t go and shoot other stuff, you can’t go back to people and say, “I know you did it like this, but can you do it like this. Could you have another go at it.” The film is what you get given, what people give you.

For me that was what was really exciting about it. I started as a filmmaker in documentaries, and I love that sense of trying to discover something through the process of making a film. There are so many things that become second-nature as a filmmaker: about how to tell a story, how to think about where the camera should be, how to compress the narrative. Here you don’t get any of that because the filmmakers have their own ways of telling their story. So it’s a really fresh and exciting way to say, well what have we got? What’s there? How can we tell a story? I know this person’s trying to say this, but they haven’t given us the shots to say that, so how do we say that?

It was a really challenging and exciting process. Sometimes you find out things about yourself, and about the project, that you didn’t expect. It’s an amazing experience for a director to have your view of the world, but then to be given a whole lot of material that comes from somewhere else. You’re putting your hand into the stream of people’s thoughts and feelings and trying to work out what it is they’re trying to say.

How did the selection process work? Did you reject a lot of material?

There was a massive selection process. We got 8000 separate clips but we had an hour and a half [running time] so we had to reject lots of stuff. We worked with a brilliant editor called Kristina Hetherington. We viewed everything, tried to say “OK, what do we like? What’s working? What’s interesting? What might not work but still be interesting?” We gradually started to reduce the quantity of material and land on things that spoke to us. Gradually you’re left with something, and you’re thinking “What does this add up to?” The process of making the film makes you ask questions about your own interests.

How did you source the contributors?

So it’s a collaboration between Ridley Scott’s company Scott Free and Fuji in Japan and it was very well advertised on the internet and TV that this one day, a year after the tsunami, was going to be a day where – if you wanted to take part – you would film your story. All this stuff got uploaded, and we had tons of Japanese loggers who would watch the material and input it into a database. We had a very sophisticated database which would allow us to search for different things, and allow us to rate and grade things in terms of stories that we liked and didn’t like.

Do you see this as a novelty structure, or a model for future films?

I think it’s a really interesting new kind of filmmaking because I think that people are becoming incredibly visually sophisticated. People have a different relationship with technology and with filming their lives than even just a few years ago. People are more candid about what they think and feel [on film]. This allows you to tap into this wave of feelings, and also to see what people are interested in. [This kind of film] is an interesting way of making sense of the YouTube, self-filming phenomenon.

It had been a year since the tsunami in Japan. There have been a zillion documentaries about it, and in a few years time there’ll be dramas about it, as everyone tries to wrestle with and understand why this awful thing happened, what it means, and how to live with it. So there’s a documentary approach and a drama approach, and this is somewhere between the two. It has the honesty and the truthfulness and the candidness of YouTube; it has the shape and the structure of drama. It’s a strange, hybrid form.

It must be a low-budget model of filmmaking…

Yes it is. You spend the money on editing, and there are costs on the technological/logging side of things. You’re certainly not standing in the middle of a field with a crew of a hundred people waiting for something to happen.

How has the film been received in Japan?

It’s gone down incredibly I think. [The tsunami] was a massive event: 20,000 people were killed, and then the tsunami damaged a nuclear power plant which then caused a large area to be contaminated with radiation. So it’s caused a massive process of soul-searching about whether or not it was preventable, but also more broadly about whether nuclear power is the way to go, and how you deal with your relationship with the natural world. So many of the people that were killed or live in the affected areas were from small fishing villages, people who get their livelihood from the sea, so they have this precarious relationship with the natural world which supports them but also threatens them. The feelings about it are very deep, and obviously the tragedy of it is enormous. You can’t really ever make sense of something like that, but I think films like this act as an interesting and valuable way into the process.

As a filmmaker, has it left you wanting to get back behind the camera next time?

Definitely. It’s made me hungry for control. It’s good to surrender it now and then, but yes I now really want to go and shoot something again myself.

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