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Digging to Argentina

A few things I’ve enjoyed learning on this trip – outside of our filming:

1. Argentina is where Japanese kids dig to in the sandbox. Yuki (our pet for the past two weeks) is anxious to get to South America, too.

He’s not going to China…

2. In Japan – where being the eldest is such a point of honor – the ranking in twin births is interesting. The first baby born is considered the youngest. The baby born second is the oldest. While filming SON OF SAICHI, we met Saichi’s great-grandaughters – twins Miu and Reika. Their mom tells us that even though Reika was born a few minutes after Miu, she is considered the eldest.

Reika (left) & Miu (right)

3. Sushi-go-rounds are about as much fun as you can have at a restaurant. An eating frenzy akin to tossing chum to sharks. And cheap. Every plate is 100 yen (108 with tax) – that’s one dollar. Not into raw fish? Don’t despair. The conveyor belt offers up sushi-sized mini hamburgers on rice. Looking for something made fresh? Just order off the computer menu and a high speed “train” shoots out your selection from the kitchen.

Waiting for the bullet train carrying dessert.


Beth Balaban with our wonderful translator Marion and Hidekazu, Saichi’s son. We’re all proud of our plate collection!

For updates on our production of SON OF SAICHI, follow us on Facebook and Twitter.


Giant Hornet Juice

Just when I thought there was nothing left to say about the terrifying Japanese Giant Hornet, Hidekazu pulls out his Giant Hornet Juice.

“Just one drop, and I feel like stinging someone,” he says. “It’s power.”

It turns out being deadly isn’t the giant hornet’s only gift. Its strength, speed, and endurance are to be envied: The giant hornet can lift as much as six pounds, fly up to 25mph, and travel 60 miles in one day. Want that kind of power yourself? Find some inspiration from the worm-in-tequila trick, and just add the 3 inch monster – or its larvae – to your favorite hard alcohol (here, that’s shōchū). It’s giant hornet season right now, and I definitely like them much better drowning in booze than buzzing around above our heads.

Killer hornets doin’ the Shochu Soak.


Giant Hornet Larvae Juice. Couple swigs for power.

For more on our filming adventures for SON OF SAICHI, follow us on Facebook and Twitter.


Crew Survival Stories

Enough about the radiation. The crew has survived:

1. Teens firing a pellet gun in the house.

It was no fun when the rain started. So why not just bring the game inside?

2. An attempted boob grab. Pulsing fingers and all.

3. Hoya. Our host spent two days giggling about serving it to us. You can try to dress hoya up with a sweet name like Sea Pineapple or a cute one like Sea Squirt, but one look tells you all you need to know. Even Wieden + Kennedy couldn’t sell this thing.

It’s rare. And should stay that way.

4. The Japanese Giant Hornet. We’d heard the lore, and took the claims to Wikipedia, quickly confirming that this hornet is the biggest in the world. It’s also poisonous. Today, we had our first – and second – F2F with one. Hidekazu Ouchi, who we’re filming for SON OF SAICHI, grew up on a farm and has been attacked numerous times. He told us everything we need to know: 1. You go unconscious quickly. 2. Treatment has to happen within 15 minutes (But wait!! The “city” is 20 minutes away?!). 3. No treatment = Death.

Cracked.com calls it “one of the five most horrifying bugs in the world” and writes this: Why you must fear it: It’s the size of your thumb and it can spray flesh-melting poison. We really wish we were making that up for, you know, dramatic effect because goddamn, what a terrible thing a three-inch acid-shooting hornet would be, you know? Oh, hey, did we mention it shoots it into your eyes? Or that the poison also has a pheromone cocktail in it that’ll call every hornet in the hive to come over and sting you until you are no longer alive?

Natural Born Killer. Spotted at the home where we’re filming.

We use this opportunity to announce that we will be doing the remainder of our filming from an air conditioned hotel room.

For more on our filming adventures for SON OF SAICHI, follow us on Facebook and Twitter.


The 49th Day

Tsugiko prepares for her husband’s 49th day memorial

“This is a very important day for sending his spirit on… for sending him on to the next world,” says Tsugiko Ouchi as she prepares what she will wear to today’s memorial service. Her husband, Hiroshima survivor Saichi, died forty-nine days ago, and in the Buddhist tradition, this is the day his spirit will transition to its new life.

Like everything in her life now – her post-evacuation life – events big and small become reminders of what she’s lost. After spending 20 minutes rifling through everything in her bedroom drawers and painstakingly separating her dry cleaning, Tsugiko realizes she’s missing her best black kimono – the very thing she wants to wear to today’s service. The kimono, her son tells her, is back home in Yamakiya hanging in a closet that seems frozen in time since they were forced to leave after the nuclear disaster in 2011.

After today’s memorial service Hidekazu, Saishi’s son, will put his father’s picture next to the other ancestors who have passed.

The priest who is leading today’s memorial service is a friend of Hidekazu’s from childhood, and he’s been generous enough to give us permission to film. He’s also the one who gave Saichi his holy name after he died. The holy name is important after death because Buddhist tradition says if spirits hear their own name on earth, they might want to stay, but this new name helps set them free.

“This is really good name, very meaningful,” Hidekazu says as he shows us the ten characters (longer holy names are “better” – and by comparison, when his brother died last year, his holy name was only six characters). The long name includes characters for “pure” and “special,” and is an indication of how much Saichi contributed to the temple and community during his lifetime, and how much his ancestors contributed during theirs.

Hidekazu with the “ihais” – spirit tablets – of his brother and father. Written on the tablets are their holy names. These tablets are kept at the family altar inside the home.

Follow the filming of our documentary SON OF SAICHI on Facebook and Twitter #sonofsaichi #bethsinjapan


#RunFukushima

Kawamata Town in Fukushima Prefecture, Japan

It’s so much fun running in new places! I like getting up and out early and discovering how this new-to-me community wakes up and says Good Morning! to the world. It’s especially great here in Kawamata where four breathtaking mountain ranges hug the valley. Even before 5am, elderly men and women are walking their dogs and tending their gardens along the Hirose and Isazawa Rivers.

Around every bend, I find an invitation – and so much beauty in nature’s surprises.

Clearly an invitation to a trail run!


I brake for tadpoles on lily pads.


Another invitation! This one to climb…


Waiting at the top of the stairs…

Kawamata is not an evacuation zone, but public Geiger counters keep track of radiation levels round-the-clock, and there is radiological clean-up happening here – especially on the mountainsides where contamination is highest. The problem is the poison doesn’t stay high in the mountains. Soil erosion – especially after heavy rains – can bring the Cesium into backyards, rice paddies, vegetable gardens and water sources.

One of the official government geiger counters in Kawamata.

Kawamata is right next to Yamakiya, an evacuated village where we are filming SON OF SAICHI. The reading of 0.150 microsieverts of radiation per hour translates into 13.9 millisieverts of radiation per year. The International Commission on Radiological Protection recommends a dosage limit of one millisievert per year from all sources of radiation, which puts this measure at nearly 14 times higher. Many believe that if the government were being honest and doing the right thing, this area would be evacuated, too.

But besides the Geiger counters, there is really no sign that anything is out of the ordinary here. Life seems normal. Sulky, uniformed teens walk to school; the favorite lunch place is too packed by noon to get a seat; and a huge grocery store called Happy Foods recently came to town. Despite the risk, despite the fear, they carry on.

[The carry on theme is big in the song that's on every one of my playlists this trip: "Welcome to the Black Parade" by My Chemical Romance]

For more on our filming adventures for SON OF SAICHI, follow us on Facebook and Twitter.


Beware of the Giant Hornet

Yamakiya, Japan – Forced Evacuation Zone

More than 2,300 decontamination workers are in Yamakiya tackling a portion of the largest radiological clean-up the world has ever seen. If you expect them to be armed with much more than rakes, think again.

It’s a shockingly unsophisticated effort.

“If you look at it from afar, it doesn’t make any sense what they’re doing. But when you get up close, then you can really understand,” says Hidekazu Ouchi, the son of Hiroshima survivor Saichi Ouchi, and the star of our film SON OF SAICHI.

Well-intentioned workers who are weary of being beat up by the press are raking leaves, weed-whacking overgrown rice paddies, hand-feeding small trees through wood chippers, hand-carrying branches from the woods, and climbing the mountainside to clear topsoil and brush.

We climbed up there with them today, too – and I can tell you it is risky, back-breaking, mind-numbingly slow work that involves being tethered to a tree while worrying about whether the Japanese giant hornet will strike. And there’s good reason to fear – it’s the largest hornet in the world and kills dozens of people in Japan every year, giving it the distinction of killing more people than any other animal here.

Branches contaminated with radiation are carried out of the forest in Yamakiya, a mandatory evacuation area.

The decontamination work is happening on the mountain’s first sixty-five feet. What if there’s contamination in the sixty-sixth foot? No one I talked to wants to answer that. Nor do they really feel like they should have to.

Yamakiya – specifically Hidekazu’s property – was one of nineteen test sites, and the effectiveness and efficiency of this decontamination technology was proven when initial soil scraping and leaf removal yielded a drop in radiation levels here. This success became a model for the massive decontamination effort that is now underway in twenty Fukushima communities.

Will it work? Will Hidekazu and his family be able to return home? Those are questions no one really can answer today. But new, brightly colored signs lining the roads want people to believe the answer is Yes: “Everyone do your best to come back with smiling faces,” one neon pink flag waves.

For more on our filming adventures for SON OF SAICHI, follow us on Facebook and Twitter.


Anti-Nuke Undies

Iizaka Village in Kawamata Town in Fukushima Prefecture, Japan

Current top ranking for most ridiculous conversation goes to:
Me: “We need anti-radioactive underwear.”
Balaban: “Do they sell that at the hardware store?”

It costs $875 to add 7.5lbs of lead to your booty.

For more on our filming adventures for SON OF SAICHI, follow us on Facebook and Twitter.


Ring of Fire

10th Floor, Toyoko Inn, Fukushima City

There are lots of fun reasons for a bed to be rattling in the middle of the night. But an earthquake isn’t one of them. The first quake hits at 3:20am. It’s a 5.7 magnitude off the coast of Ibaraki Prefecture, and feels like a ride on a coin-operated horse at the grocery store. Within ten seconds it’s over.

The second quake two hours later is slightly weaker – 5.6 magnitude – but closer. About twenty miles away right off the coast of Fukushima Prefecture. Fear strikes in a waiting-for-the-ceiling-to-crash-down kind of way. I stand paralyzed in the middle of my tiny hotel room with one overarching thought, “I do not want to die in the Japanese equivalent of a Holiday Inn.”

Our earthquakes are the orange and yellow ones.

Beth Balaban and I have been here three times in two years for filming Son of Saichi, and every time, there’s been a quake. Is this really what daily life here is like? Here’s the tally from our little corner of this Pacific Ring of Fire:
2 earthquakes today
3 earthquakes in the past 7 days
5 earthquakes in the past month
118 earthquakes in the past year

Scientists say the abundant seismic activity here could give Japan all the clean energy it needs – as much as twenty nuclear reactors. I think it might be time to enjoy the seismically charged hot springs to evaluate further…

For more on our filming adventures for SON OF SAICHI, follow us on Facebook and Twitter.


The Smell of Cabotage in the Morning

Logan Airport, 4:30am

“You may be alright,” Chris, the Air Canada ticket agent tells us. “But it’s risky. That’s flying too close to the sun for me.”

And so begins Friday the 13th, and our trip to Japan to film SON OF SAICHI. We’ve been accused – more accurately our travel agent has been accused – of cabotage. It’s illegal. And it means we’re grounded.

Google cabotage and you’ll find a Wikipedia entry that highlights our exact situation:
Cabotage situations can occur as a consequence of hub-and-spoke operations. Consider that Air Canada has a major hub at Toronto that offers flights to several U.S. cities. While a passenger is able to buy a ticket from Boston to Toronto, and a separate ticket from Toronto to Seattle [in our case Minneapolis] that same day, both flights cannot be offered on the same itinerary because this would effectively be a U.S. domestic service. Never mind that the Twin Cities are not our final destination.

The offending itinerary.

No big deal. We’ll skip Toronto. We just need to get to Minneapolis to grab that flight to Tokyo. And United can get us there for $250. Except missing the first Air Canada leg cancels the entire ticket, and Delta wants $5,600 apiece to reissue! A little bit of travel agent magic convinces Delta to get us on board for $350. Done.

Fukushima-bound once more!

Stay tuned for updates from the road. This weekend we reconnect with the Ouchi family – a family of nuclear refugees who’ve been waiting for two years for their farmland to be decontaminated so they can return home. But now that this moment has arrived, they are more uncertain than ever about whether moving forward means reclaiming their ancestral home.


Freedom Is Like Oxygen: A Story to Honor International Women’s Day

Today – International Women’s Day – Principle Pictures honors Margaret Marsahll,
a woman we met this year who inspires us greatly.

Growing up in the small coal-and-steel town of Newcastle, South Africa, Margaret Marshall doesn’t remember having any dreams for her future.

“It sounds strange, but I just didn’t,” she says.

The truth was the women in her life were not the kind of role models who inspired her to dream.

“So few white South African women had careers,” Marshall remembers, that she could not envision herself ever having one either.

She was 4-years-old when apartheid became the rule of law in her country, and she remembers her father, an industrial chemist, and her mother, a homemaker, staying clear of politics, and accepting the status quo.

“In South Africa I knew something was wrong, I didn’t like how black people were treated, but I didn’t have the context in which to put it.”

That changed when Marshall, a gifted student, had the opportunity to study in the U.S. It was 1962 — a turbulent time in American history when the Civil Rights movement was beginning to make progress. The same month she began her studies in Wilmington, Delaware as a high school exchange student, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that the University of Mississippi — “Ole Miss” — must admit James Meredith, its very first black student.

Watching Walter Cronkite’s evening news broadcasts, Marshall was shocked to see how Americans could question the government, but not — as would happen in her own country — be locked away for it. She absorbed what was happening with not only her eyes and ears, but with her heart and soul: The governor of Mississippi ordered state troopers to block Meredith from the Ole Miss campus, and race riots broke out leaving two people dead. Within days, President Kennedy ensured Meredith a place in the classroom, U.S. marshals by his side for safety.

“This had an enormous impact on me,” says Marshall. “There were two fundamental building blocks for me. Religion — ‘love thy neighbor as thyself’ — and education. If you let people read, think and discuss, their minds will open. It is not accidental that repressive regimes move against intellectuals.”

In South Africa so many books were banned, Marshall says, “I had to come to the U.S. to read.” And she read like never before — consuming books that were illegal back home; most notably, Cry, The Beloved Country, Alan Paton’s searing look at the anguish humans experience in the face of injustice.

“Sorrow is better than fear,” Paton wrote. “Fear is a journey, a terrible journey, but sorrow is at least an arrival. When the storm threatens, a man is afraid for his house. But when the house is destroyed, there is something to do. About a storm he can do nothing, but he can rebuild a house.”

After her year in America, Marshall returned to South Africa in 1963, seemingly determined to stop the storm.

“Freedom is like oxygen,” she says. “You don’t notice it until you can’t breathe.”

Marshall joined the anti-apartheid National Union of South African Students (NUSAS) — the only female member at the time. Soon, she was President.

“Once you realize that what you’ve been taught is not reality, it influences the way you look at the rest of the world.”

She argued for freedom, organized marches, protested banned books and torture, wrote letters to the press, raised money for black families whose loved ones had been arrested, and boldly asked Robert F. Kennedy to visit. He said, yes.

On June 5, 1966 she met Kennedy at Johanesburg’s Jan Smuts Airport and escorted him to Cape Town. The next day, he delivered the NUSAS’s annual Day of Affirmation Speech, a speech that is widely considered to be the greatest of his life.

“Each time a man stands up for an ideal, or acts to improve the lot of others, or strikes out against injustice,” Kennedy told the crowd, “he sends forth a tiny ripple of hope, and crossing each other from a million different centers of energy and daring, those ripples build a current which can sweep down the mightiest walls of oppression and resistance.”

These were among the darkest days of apartheid, and Kennedy provided a light.

“Robert Kennedy was the first person who made me feel that what I was feeling, and what I was critical of, was part of a great human movement toward equality for all people,” Marshall remembers.

As she continued to stand up to South Africa’s repressive regime, Marshall knew she was in increasing danger. Government officials tapped her phone and police followed her. Other white anti-apartheid activists — her friends — were under house arrest. Still, the fact that she was white worked to her advantage. As did being a woman.

“It was unusual for a woman to do what I was doing. The combination of being white and a woman made it more difficult for the South African government to move against me more quickly than it did. Certainly, remaining in South Africa would not have been safe.”

With the help of political activists and others who wanted her to be safe, Marshall returned to the U.S. at the age of twenty-two.

Soon her moral outrage toward injustice was combined with a passion for the rule of law and degrees from Harvard and Yale. She blazed a trail as a young female attorney — simply for being a young female attorney when everyone else in a courtroom was male. Then in 1999 she became Chief Justice of the Supreme Judicial Court of Massachusetts — the first woman to hold that position in the Court’s more than three hundred year history.

Although she is most well known for her landmark decision in 2003 in Goodridge v. Department of Public Health which made Massachusetts the first state to legalize gay marriage, there were so many other ways Marshall’s groundbreaking work championed access to justice for all. She fought for gender equality in judicial proceedings, broke down language barriers in the courthouse and established procedures to help litigants forced to represent themselves because they cannot afford attorneys.

The little girl who dared not dream as a child has spent her life fulfilling the dreams of others.

Now, in her own words:

This article appears in HuffPost.