Sport & Culture

Sendai: A Tale of Football and Hope

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Sport & Culture

Sendai: A Tale of Football and Hope

A film tells the story of football’s role in rebuilding Sendai after the March 2011 earthquake.

On April 23, 2011, several thousand Vegalta Sendai football club fans decked out in the team’s blue and golden yellow colors made the 500 mile round trip to Todoroki Athletics Stadium in Kawasaki city, where Vegalta faced off with J. League Division 1 rival Kawasaki Frontale.

As the game warmed up, Vegalta’s famed Supporter Squad – a volunteer choir of some 4,000 fans – hyped the crowd with their normal set list of songs by Kiss, The Ramones and Twisted Sister, and most importantly their trademark rendition of John Denver’s classic “Take Me Home, Country Roads.”

But this was not just any game. It was the first game after the J. League resumed play following the catastrophic 9.0 magnitude earthquake that left parts of Tohoku in ruins on March 11 that year.

“I cannot imagine how I will feel at the start of tomorrow’s game,” the Japan Football Association reported Vegalta’s manager Makoto Teguramori as saying before the game in Kawasaki. “If we play tough, we can encourage the people in Sendai and the Tohoku District and give them hope. We want to be a power for those who have lost hope.”

The recent devastation fresh on everyone’s mind infused the game with added urgency and emotional charge. In response, Frontale’s fans joined Vegalta’s cheering section in belting out the songs before the competition began. When the players stepped onto the pitch that day, Vegalta fans unfurled a giant banner that read: “Thank you for all our friends, we do not lose again until we regain a hometown.”

They did not disappoint. Representing more than just the city’s football team, the players and cheering section forged a symbiotic relationship with the city they call home and made a vow not to lose until Sendai was rebuilt. Starting in Kawasaki that day, VegaltGa pulled ahead with a late goal to win 2-1, the first in an 11-game winning streak. After nearly being dropped from the league the year prior, they finished the season fourth – their best ever result.

Vegalta’s dramatic rally in the 2011 season mirrored the rebuilding of Sendai – a journey that is traced through the point of view of the Supporters Squad in the documentary film Football, Take Me Home, co-directed by filmmakers Douglas Hurcombe and Geoff Trodd, who recently launched GPO Films, a company “with a deliberately intimate approach to filmmaking.”

Hurcombe and Trodd made it a point to shoot all of the film’s footage with handheld cameras to keep the feel of the movie as authentic and personal as possible. The film is being courted by festivals in England and Japan and the directors plan to donate some of its proceeds to help redevelop Tohoku.

Reflecting on his time creating the film, Hurcombe told The Diplomat, “The atmosphere inside the stadium is so incredible. Having been to grounds all over Europe and parts of South America, it certainly ranks alongside anything I’ve seen.”

Hurcombe, whose wife is Japanese, added, “I grew up in the cauldron of the hotly contested local derbies of North London between Spurs and Arsenal in the 1980s and the mood at the Niigata game (included in the film) was bordering on that for intensity. Keeping my eyes off the pitch and through the camera was probably one of the hardest things I’ve ever had to do in a football ground.”

Sendai was at the geographical center of the 9.0 magnitude mega-quake that devastated a large swathe of the Tohoku region two years ago today, which resulted in more than 15,000 deaths. In the Sendai area, the waves generated by this undersea megathrust quake pummeled everything in their path as far as 10 km (6 miles) inland.

Indeed, the shadow of the earthquake hung heavily over the team’s season. “Some of the people we interviewed (for the film) said that, among their regular match day friends, they literally didn’t know who was alive or dead until they got to the (Kawasaki) game. And sadly many hadn’t made it,” Hurcombe said.

Yet, like a Phoenix, Sendai’s stadium was remarkably rebuilt in just six weeks and its port reopened April 26. Vegalta’s team played a major role in this recovery and, notes Hurcombe, the club “became a symbol of the recovery and pretty much an inspiration to the whole country.”

Off the pitch, when the earthquake struck, Vegalta players immediately volunteered to help distribute emergency supplies. Further, the players have been continuously engaged with organizing soccer schools for children orphaned and those left homeless by the earthquake.

The team has also acted as a supplier for the areas hardest hit by the quake, especially in the devastated agricultural and fishing communities that were once the lifeblood of the region, both rejuvenating the economy and countering suspicions that surround the safety of food sourced from the area.

“These small towns are now the food suppliers and vendors for the club, which to me is incredible,” Hurcombe said. “Can you imagine a premier league club saying ‘No’ to a large franchise chain in order to sell fresh local produce?”

Today, redevelopment of Sendai and rebuilding of the wider Tohoku region is still a work in progress. Particularly in the coastal regions the return to normalcy has been harder to come by than in Sendai, which is largely back to business as usual. Now that two years have passed since that fateful day, Japan has not forgotten. Yet, the horror of the event has gradually receded into memory.

“To be honest, everyone has already started to forget about the tragedy on a daily basis,” Kaoru Kumeda, Hurcombe’s wife and co-producer of the film, told The Diplomat. “Even when we would like to think that we are keeping it in mind, we often do not – unless we are in the middle of it. For example, the temporary shopping mall in Tohoku is struggling to get sales these days as not many volunteers or tourists visit there.”

Kumeda continued, “A lot of people told me after the tragedy that they just feel they should do what they must to return to normality and move forward. Everyone was trying to live their normal lives.”

This desire to return to stability is completely understandable for those who have suffered such loss, and indeed, is very much associated with Japan’s national character – this ability to pick up the pieces and rebuild from nothing. They did it after WWII and they did it after 3/11. But this does not mean that it is accomplished effortlessly. Ultimately, a desire to balance this tendency to downplay Japan’s admirable achievement in bouncing back is at the heart of the motivation behind this film.

“You get the feeling that because it’s Japan people kind of say ‘Well, of course they’ve recovered, because it’s Japan… It’s what they do,’” Hurcombe said. “This is selling a whole lot of human suffering and effort very short.”

He continued: “I’d like this film to connect people to that effort through a medium that everyone understands: Sport…. Just because it’s being done quietly and without fuss, doesn’t mean that it’s painless.”