Interview: Bit by Bit, Filmmaker Shares a Crowd-Funded Story of Japan Rebuilding

It's an unlikely transition: from being a contributor at Wired magazine, sharing weird Japanese gadgets and holding a "Win-A-Golden-Poop" cell phone strap contest on her site, Tokyomango, journalist Lisa Katayama is now embarked on a larger project — to tell a story of rebuilding lives in the tsunami-hit fishing town of Motoyoshi, a three-hour drive north of Sendai.

Despite its title, We Are All Radioactive isn't your typical 90-minute documentary chronicling the destruction caused by the 2011 earthquake or the ensuing radiation scares. In a bid for creative freedom, the production team experiments with crowd-funding on The result? Honest, bite-sized episodes about optimism and resolve among the community. Inspired by TV dramas, Katayama told Japan Times, "We want to build themes for the audience by letting them meet different characters in different episodes. In the next episode you meet more, and the story becomes more complex."

Episodes are released slowly, both because of the amount of work involved and because Katayama and her collaborators simply don't have a lot of funds.

AsiaBlog interviewed Katayama via email about experimenting with crowd-funding, her production process, and her experience filming the project.

You mentioned that half of your donors are from Japan. How popular is the concept of crowd-funding in Japan among project-starters and donors?

I'm not sure, but I think it's relatively new and not so widespread yet. Kickstarter really legitimized the concept in the U.S., and I know there are a couple of Japanese startups that are doing something similar. IndieGoGo makes it easier to get funding from abroad because they accept credit cards and PayPal; Kickstarter only does Amazon payments.

How does the production process work: do you film first, and then wait for funds before going into post-production? What's the bulk of the funding spent on?

We filmed most of Season 1 in June and September of last year. And then there are hours and hours of footage that the locals themselves shot with the waterproof cameras we gave them, which take us through pretty much to the end of 2011. We absorbed all the upfront costs ourselves. We raised just over $17,000 for post-production of the first four episodes, which isn't very much. A chunk of it went to our web site designers, another big cut went to the editors, we paid fees to both IndieGoGo and PayPal, took a couple of follow-up reporting trips, paid our sound designers…

What is the motivation behind this project? Do you feel that the stories you're telling have been neglected as tsunami stories die down?

As a Japanese citizen living abroad, I felt like I had to do something to contribute to earthquake relief. So I'm doing it the best way I know how — by telling stories. Most of the coverage in the media is about the radiation scare, with occasional human stories about the unlikely survivor or the distraught family. But you rarely hear about how ordinary people are doing extraordinary things to survive and thrive in the long haul.

What impact do you hope to achieve with We Are All Radioactive?

I hope We Are All Radioactive is both entertaining and informative to people around the world who have survived natural disasters, who care about the environment and who love the ocean. But I'm also hoping it will lead to real change in the Tohoku region. Even after the episodes are completed, we're planning to keep the social media aspect of the film robust and interactive, so that the audience can connect with the people in the film, and those who are in positions where they can provide real hands-on aid can contribute to the reconstruction in more tangible ways than just donating to opaque "Japan relief" funds.

What surprised you most about Motoyoshi and the communities you covered?

I had never hung out with Japanese fishermen before, and I have to say, they are pretty awesome.

Was it difficult getting the locals to talk to you? When interviewees shy away from the camera, how hard do you press them? Any hostile reactions?

My collaborator Jason Wishnow and I went to Tohoku with no agenda — we just spent some time hanging out and then asked each person whether they felt comfortable answering a few questions on camera. And while we did anticipate that the locals might be too shy or traumatized to talk about their experiences on camera, this actually wasn't true at all. The whole point of giving them cameras was precisely to try to capture the moments that we might not be privy to as relative strangers — we got a lot of intimate, insider perspectives that way, from what they shot themselves. The people of Tohoku are known for their resilience and honesty, and they certainly lived up to their reputation! And no, there was absolutely no hostility.

Catch Chapter 4 of We Are All Radioactive when it's released in June-July.

About the Author

Profile picture for user Shuan Sim
Shuan Sim is a contributor to Asia Blog. Originally from Singapore, he's currently studying Journalism at New York University — and is an avid unicyclist.