Photo/Illutration Sonomi Sato stands at the former site of Okawa Elementary School in Ishinomaki, Miyagi Prefecture, in February. (Shigetaka Kodama)

Sonomi Sato stands on the former grounds of an elementary school in Miyagi Prefecture and starts reading a letter to her younger sister who was killed by the tsunami there nine years ago.

Recording herself with a camera, Sato says, “Dear Mizuho, how have you been?”

It was the opening scene of a film produced by Sato, a 23-year-old art student in Tokyo.
The film touches on the tragedy that befell Okawa Elementary School in Ishinomaki on March 11, 2011.

But Sato said another intention of the film is to break the stereotype on how survivors of the disaster should behave.

“I wanted to tell the bereaved family members and survivors, ‘You don’t have to carry the lives of the deceased on your shoulders so much,’” she said.


Mizuho was one of the 74 children at the school who were swallowed up by the tsunami that hit the Pacific coast of the Tohoku region after the Great East Japan Earthquake. She was a 12-year-old sixth-grader when she died.

“Mizuho, you must have turned 21 years old already. Time flies so quickly, doesn’t it?” Sato, who had also attended the school, says in the film.

Following her sister’s death, Sato developed a desire to create a film about the school and the disaster. She entered Nihon University College of Art in Tokyo to make it happen.

In February, Sato completed the film project, titled “Wish I Could Talk to Your Eyes,” for her graduation work.

“I feel kind of lonely because you haven’t appeared in my dreams for a while,” Sato says. “Make nice with your friends and teachers, OK?”


The 30-minute film also captures Sato’s friends reading letters to loved ones who were lost nine years ago.

One man, who attends a university in the prefecture, was a fifth-grader at Okawa Elementary School nine years ago.

He was on the school grounds with other pupils when the tsunami washed away everything. He miraculously survived.

The man said he has talked about his experience on many occasions and been featured several times in the media.

In the film, he reads a letter to a friend who did not survive and mentions the gap between his media persona and his real self.

“I am often told, ‘You look very serious,’” he says. “But I’m self-conscious about how others see me and am just trying to go about my life in conformity with such perceptions.”

In another segment, the film features a woman who works at a photography studio in the Kanto region. The camera follows her to a bar that she frequents after work.

“You are still with me, right?” she says, reading a letter addressed to her younger sister who died at the school.

“Because you are with me all the time, I will never settle for anything less in my life,” she says cheerfully.


In addition to the 74 children, 10 teachers and school staff died at Okawa Elementary School that day.

The huge loss of life at the school was heavily covered by the news media, and Okawa Elementary School became a symbol of the tragedy of the tsunami.

On the morning of March 11 nine years ago, Mizuho ran into Sato in a bathroom at their home and said, “Good morning.”

But Sato was in a bad mood and ignored the greetings of her little sister.

It was the last time she saw Mizuho.

Sato, who has also been interviewed by the media, recalls being treated “as if I were a person of noble character.”

She felt that the public has branded survivors and bereaved family members as people who are supposed to carry emotional scars and dwell on the past forever.

Seeking to dash such expectations imposed on her and her friends, Sato wanted to direct the spotlight on the question of how survivors and bereaved families should behave.

When she was making the film, however, Sato often worried about hurting the feelings of other bereaved families and being accused of exploiting the tragedy.

But every time she felt distressed, she was reminded of her mission to keep the stories and memories of Okawa Elementary School alive, telling herself, “If I give up now, I most definitely will regret it.”

She said that the times when the mission weighed heavily on her, she most strongly felt the presence of Mizuho, cheering her on.

Sato said she felt that those who died in the disaster would surely be happy to see the survivors living well and fine.

The ‘You’ in the film title refers not only to victims of the disaster but also to people who live far away and have never seen the Okawa school, Sato said.

She hopes to soon hold screenings of the film in her hometown.


Sato will graduate from the university and start a career at a production company in Tokyo from April.

On the morning of March 11, Sato woke up at her parents’ home in Miyagi Prefecture to observe the ninth anniversary of the disaster. She planned to visit the school site with her family in the afternoon.

In past ceremonies, she always felt tense. But for this year’s events, she said she feels calmer than usual.