On March 3, 2011, the Oshika Peninsula of the Tohoku Region in Japan became the site of one of the most devastating earthquakes in recent history, what is now referred to as the Great East Japan Earthquake. The region was hit by a 9.0 magnitude undersea earthquake which later resulted in a tsunami. Add to the disaster was the nuclear accident in Fukushima caused by the tsunami and the earthquake, which was said to be the most severe since Chernobyl. The disaster claimed more than 19-thousand lives, while more than 2000 remains missing to this day. Throughout the years, Japanese cinema has responded to this disaster in various ways, from Shunji Iwai’s intimate documentary Friends after 3.11 (2011) to Sion Sono’s dramatic critique The Land of Hope (2012).
Ten years after the disaster, Fuji TV launched three animated features to commemorate the lives of those who were affected. First to be released is The House of the Lost on the Cape, an adaptation of Sachiko Kashibawa’s 2015 Noma Children’s Literature Prize-winning novel, Misaki no Mayoiga (literal translation: Mayoiga of the Ridge). The novel was adapted for film by the tandem of director Shinya Kawatsura and writer Reiko Yoshida who are both responsible for the slice-of-life classic Non-Non Biyori (2015).
The film opens with teenager Yui (voiced by Mana Ashida) and the young Hiyori (Sari Awano) as they follow an elderly, Kiwa (Shinobu Otake), down the road and past by the now-devastated seaside town torn by earthquake and tsunami, moving towards their new home by the ridge near the underwater caves. Kiwa later told Yui and Hiyori that the house that they are moving in is a Mayoiga: a mythical house that is said to bring indiscriminate hospitality to anyone who seeks shelter in them. Doubtful of Kiwa’s pronouncements, Yui tested the house once Kiwa left by loudly demanding a glass of ice-cold water, which the house easily provided her.
What really sets The House of the Lost on the Cape apart in terms of how it treats post-disaster realities is how it approached the notion of healing outside of the usual narrative tropes of restoration of past order, making visible disaster-victims that have nowhere to go back to. Yui and Hiyori are clear cases of such extreme conditions. Hiyori lost her capability to speak due to the trauma of losing her parents first in an accident, later, all her relatives at the disaster. Yui found herself at the evacuation center for different reasons than the disaster, as she was running away from her abusive father. Kiwa, a stranger to both, took them in at the mayoiga.
The strange house thematically binds the whole film. Once a place of strangeness, the mayoiga bridges Yui and Hiyori to the life that is waiting for them. The disaster they just faced erased what they know of the present, the process of their healing made them rely on the mythical past that the house represents. Through Kiwa’s stories, the mythologies concerning blessings, disaster, and grief are told by the film, first, with a different style of animation as a clear demarcation between what is their present, and what is the mythological past.
The mythologies later revealed to be real made a point of synthesis with the earlier distrustful Yui. Yui’s distrust of other people, coming from the trauma from her father, slowly are being unclouded by her close encounters with strange mythical creatures who laugh carelessly and appreciate her cooking wholeheartedly. This opens the film’s take on healing for people who don’t have anywhere to go back to, that what it really takes is to find comfort in trusting strangers, and comfort in strangeness. The House of the Lost on the Cape makes a clear point on this in the context of disaster: those who survived have in them also suffering that they are coping with from day to day, who are also threatened by the uncertainty of the future while dangerously being haunted by the past that hopelessness, represented by the snake-like red-eyed monsters, feeds from.
While being produced in the context of moving on from the disaster ten years ago, The House of the Lost on the Cape may also just be a film to consider as worthwhile as we try to move past the ongoing pandemic. Its attitude towards the past seems like what we need for now: that to look for the comforting familiarity of the past will be dangerous for us if we are to survive through this. Yui and Hiyori look at their uncertain future, while equally frightening, with a smile and bravery.
The House of the Lost on the Cape was shown as part of the Japan Foundation Touring Film Programme from February 4 to March 31 2020.