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The Producer's Story
Waiting for the Earthquake
by Sarah Holt

World in the Balance homepage

I had visited Japan when I was 17, and now it was wonderful to be back and experience the country as an adult, looking through the lens of a camera. As I drove in from the airport, I marveled at Tokyo's vastness: an endless urban sprawl that seemed as if ten cities the size of New York had been crammed into one. "By the way," my translator noted, "they predict that an earthquake will strike the city this week." "Are earthquakes predictable?" I asked, not sure if this was a joke or one more potential pitfall that could derail a carefully planned documentary shoot. I got no answer.

After checking into my hotel, I pushed myself to stay awake until nightfall, desperate to adjust to the 13-hour time difference as quickly as possible. While I waited to go out to dinner with the crew, I studied the buttons on the toilet seat in my bathroom. Some generated an array of soft gurgling noises to offer privacy. Others sprayed jets of water at different intensities. Tokyo was high tech. Cab doors opened and shut automatically. The subway system was a model of urban planning. Five-story television screens mounted on the sides of buildings competed with throbbing neon signs, creating an MTV-like sensory overload. This was clearly the home of the video game empire.

Scouting the city

The next morning, the grey clouds that often hover over Tokyo had given way to sunshine. My translator urged me to begin filming while the light was beautiful, but I still needed a day to work out pressing details for the four days of filming to follow. It seemed like a monumental task to capture the complexities of our story about this country in such a short period of time, but that was all our budget allowed. Even jet lag couldn't be accommodated in the schedule.

As we scouted final locations, we stumbled at one point across throngs of Japanese men in loincloths, chanting frenetically as they carried a portable Shinto temple from shrine to shrine in downtown Tokyo. It was surprising to see a traditional ceremony unfolding in the heart of such a modern metropolis.

At least it wasn’t raining, and the earthquake hadn’t struck.

The next day, when we were to begin shooting, the sky was overcast. Weather is one thing you can't control on a film shoot. It's usually impossible to postpone photography that requires so much advanced preparation, and our schedule didn't allow any wiggle room. At least it wasn't raining, and the earthquake hadn't struck.

The first two days of shooting unfolded exactly as planned. Our Japanese fixer was a dream of efficiency. His van came equipped with a global positioning navigation system. We were warned of every approaching turn and intersection. It was impossible to get lost. I knew our experience would be different on the next leg of our production trip, in India, where street signs disappear on the outskirts of cities and there are no landmarks to guide you.

A world in transition

For our last two shoot days in Japan, we headed west to the hill town of Ogouchi. To reach it required navigating up mountainous roads that curved in unison with a winding river. The region's claim to fame is wasabi, an herb from which the green paste you eat with your sushi is made. Because it grows only in pure mountain waters and takes years to mature, wasabi is considered a rare delicacy in Japan. "Most of the time," my translator explained, "when you think you're eating wasabi, it's really green-colored horseradish."

I wanted to film in Ogouchi to get a glimpse of the social impacts of Japan's falling birthrate and rapidly aging population. [For more on this subject, see the interview with Paul Hewitt.] One in three residents of Ogouchi is over the age of 65. Our first stop would be at the house of a Mr. and Mrs. Ohno. Perched on a hilltop at the very end of the road, it commanded a dramatic view of lush forests, valleys, and mountains. Built in the traditional Japanese style, its wooden frame had sliding rice-paper doors, tatami mats across the floor, and a sculpted oriental slate roof. The house was decorated with bear heads, deer antlers, and an enormous petrified mushroom two feet wide. Late summer flowers bloomed everywhere. It was the traditional Japan I had always imagined—a setting that was real and not for tourists.

I marveled at the care Japan lavishes upon its children.

Mr. and Mrs. Ohno seemed caught by a world in transition. Globalization had brought in cheap timber and prevented them from selling their trees to support their retirement. As the population of Ogouchi declined, the Ohno's children were forced to leave and find jobs in Tokyo. Since their children now lived in tiny city apartments and worked full time, it wasn't practical for the Ohnos to join them, and the nursing homes in Ogouchi were full. The 80-year-old couple's worries about who would care for them as they continued to age touched upon a theme I hoped to raise in the show.

That night we stayed at a Japanese inn. We arrived to a feast—dozens of beautifully prepared dishes adorned the table. Every vegetable, every piece of fish and meat had been sliced to perfection. There were the familiar sushi and sashimi, but also exotic fishy dishes I had never tried before. Each had a distinct taste and texture. Some of the food was cooked in boiling soup before us. After dinner, I took a traditional Japanese bath. The pool-deep baths are not private but shared with other guests of the same sex. It was one of the rare evenings on the film shoot when I felt I had truly experienced Japan's exquisite culture.

An eerily quiet school

The next morning, we visited the elementary school in Ogouchi. Three hundred children had once studied there, including the Ohno's. Now there were only four students. The lone fifth grader we had come to film, 11-year-old Daiki Sato, had been the only child in his class since kindergarten. I marveled at the care Japan lavishes upon its children. A staff of seven teachers and administrators were being paid to oversee the education of four children. The school was beautiful: filled with books, artwork, stuffed wild animals, an aquarium, computers, and an array of musical instruments.

We had arranged to set up our lights and dolly tracks at 7 a.m., so that when the children arrived at 8:30 a.m. the shooting could begin. I had not counted on the formality of meeting the entire staff and explaining the purpose of our project again. Yet Japan is full of formalities and rituals that must be observed. As 40 minutes ticked away, I wondered if we would be able to complete all of our shots. We had been told that we had to be finished by 11 a.m., when children from another school were due to visit.

The shot I had imagined did not exist.

I had imagined having ample time to light what would be the opening shot of the show. But by the time I was given permission to start, it had become a race. Daiki's teacher had planned other activities and gave us only 15 minutes to film the child studying alone in the classroom. To complicate matters, the classroom that had been filled with colorful projects and artwork during my research visit was now bare. The shot I had imagined did not exist. We decided to track the camera through the hall and discover Daiki sitting alone as we passed the doorway. The loud creaking of the dolly tracks caused Daiki to stare into the camera on the first few takes. Finally, everything fell into place—just minutes before a busload of students arrived and filled the empty school.

The earthquake strikes

Back in Tokyo, the skies were dark and the rain poured down. Fortunately, our shoot in Japan was complete. A typhoon was bearing down upon the city and expected to strike the next day. I wondered if the plane I was planning to catch would be grounded as the storm approached. Any delay would jeopardize our tight schedule in India. Around 1 p.m., the earthquake finally struck—5.5 on the Richter scale. Just as the shaking began to scare me, it abruptly stopped. The next day, my plane took off on time, only hours before the typhoon hit. Luck had been with me, but would it continue? India seemed far less predictable than Japan.

Read more Producer's Stories

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Tokyo at night

Tokyo's nonstop neon and video show. Energy consumption is clearly not a pressing concern for advertisers here.


If current population trends continue, well over 40 percent of Japan's population will be aged 60 or older by 2050.

Cell phone

There were nearly 64 million cell phone users in Japan by the year 2000. In high-tech Tokyo, the filmmakers never feared they would be out of range.

Mr. and Mrs. Ohno

Mr. and Mrs. Ohno outside their home in the hill town of Ogouchi

Mr. and Mrs. Ohno

Mr. Ohno walks through the woods that he once hoped he could sell to support his family.

Lone schoolboy Daiki Sato

Eleven-year-old Daiki Sato is the only child in his class at Ogouchi's elementary school.

World in the Balance

Back to the World in the Balance homepage for more articles, interviews, interactives, and slide shows.

Sarah Holt produced, directed, and wrote "The People Paradox," the first hour of "World in the Balance." Holt's credits for NOVA include "18 Ways to Make a Baby" and the Emmy Award-winning "Shackleton's Voyage of Endurance." She is currently producing a show for NOVA'S upcoming series on global health.

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