It's the world's biggest Japanese film fest, but it takes place in Germany. This year, the event called the "Nippon Connection" is continuing despite and partly in light of the earthquake and nuclear disaster in Japan.
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Preparations for the biggest Japanese film festival in the world have been underway ever since the last edition in 2010. The fest titled "Nippon Connection" is set to run from April 27 to May 1 in Frankfurt.
But this year's preparations have been unlike other, following the events set off by the March 11 earthquake in Japan.
'Paralyzed' by the news
The night before the 9.0 earthquake struck, festival head Monika Klomfass announced the program.
"We were so thrilled to finally be finished," she recalled.
But on the morning of March 11, she awoke to a call from a journalist, informing her of the tragedy.
"I was shocked and went straight to the TV," Klomfass said. "I could hardly believe what I saw - the destroyed villages, the tsunami wave. It was like I was paralyzed."
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The 50 volunteers helping put together the festival had similar stories. After hearing about the tragedy, they could barely pull themselves away from coverage on Japan. Many of them have a close relationship to Japan, either by way of family or friends there as well as colleagues in the Japanese film industry.
"Using Skype, we were able to reach most of [our friends and relatives] and were able to convince ourselves that they were doing okay," the festival director noted.
A sign of solidarity
"Once we got past the first shock, we got into a big discussion: Should we go on with the festival or just call everything off," Klomfass recalled. However, it soon became clear to the team that the festival had to take place.
"The tone was: We have to do it. No one in Japan would understand if we called the festival off as a sign of respect - it would be completely the wrong signal," she said.
In conversations with Japanese filmmakers whose work was set to be shown at the event, Klomfaß said it became clear that they agreed the show should go on. "For them it was clear, the festival needed to be a sign of solidarity."
A welcome distraction
Festival organizers have since reached the decision that 50 cents of every entry ticket will be donated to aid organizations active in the troubled country. They also expanded the festival program and invited Hitomi Kamanaka, a now internationally famous director and anti-nuclear activist.
Hitomi Kamanaka will introduce her documentary about the anti-nuclear movement in Japan at Nippon Connection. However, the rest of the program remains as planned. Animated films, manga and comedies are all on the docket.
Some have criticized the media for using scare tactics in its Japan coverage
"Many of my Japanese friends have said that they would be glad to see some comedies, to distract themselves," said Marion Klomfass.
Her goal is to create a positive, multi-faceted image of Japan at the festival and to highlight the event's functions as a platform for cultural exchange.
'Hysterical reporting' in Germany
"Our hope is that the guests take note that Japan is much more than this catastrophe," the festival director said, noting that many Germans have gotten the wrong idea about the country in light of what she referred to as "hysterical" reporting following March 11.
"Focusing in on the worst case scenario - that's typically German," she added.
The Nippon Connection team members aren't the only ones disappointed by recent coverage of Japan in Germany. Japanese students like Dan Wichter and Naohira Yauchi at the University of Bonn echoed Klomfass' complaints.
Wichter is a doctoral student who grew up in Germany with a Japanese mother and a German father, while Yauchi is from Japan and moved to Germany to study five years ago.
"It's unbelievable that after three weeks of constant panic, Japan is on the last page or not in there at all," Wichter said.
"What really bothered me is that the media tried to keep people in a constant state of panic with these live tickers updated every 20 seconds," he added. "On TV, you'd hear that the nuclear meltdown had started. That's just not factual."
Both students also said they were bothered by the lack of reporting about everyday circumstances in Japan. Instead, they felt they were confronted with clichés - for instance, that all Japanese people are patient or didn't cry or protest, Yauchi said. He was in Japan on the day of the earthquake, visiting friends in Tokyo.
"Everything was very quiet there, but of course we didn't have much information yet," he said. "Then as soon as I landed at the airport in Munich, three camera teams headed straight for me."
Students in Bonn put together a benefit for the victims in Japan
The young man described the situation as a bit like being on display in the zoo.
1,000 paper cranes
Yauchi, Wichter, and around 30 other students decided to organize a benefit for Japan at the University of Bonn featuring a drum concert, sushi and a flea market. Within four hours, the students had collected more than 4,000 euros ($5,800) in donations.
They also created hundreds of origami cranes from paper for an event they called "1,000 Cranes for Japan."
Money was one thing, but the main concern for the students was elsewhere.
"We want to inform people about what's going on in Japan - that not everyone is composed and prepared to endure everything," the student added. "We want to give Germans more insight into Japan than they've had so far through the media."
Similarly, the five-day Nippon Connection festival in Frankfurt offers a glimpse into Japan's contemporary film culture. At the same time, opportunities to help are integrated into the festival, with a Help Japan! Party scheduled for Saturday.
Author: Miriam Klaussner / gsw
Editor: Kate Bowen