In the Wake Review: A New Kind of Disaster Movie

2022 Toronto Japanese Film Festival

The images of the 2011 Tohoku earthquake and tsunami remain haunting after a decade. The aftermath of this natural disaster offers an unsettling backdrop for In the Wake, a surprising procedural from director Takahisa Zeze. In the Wake forgoes disaster movie sensationalism and plops audiences into the collective devastation that came crashing down on Sendai, the region’s largest city. Seiichiro Tomashino (Hiroshi Abe) arrives at a centre where shell-shocked, soaking-wet survivors search for answers. Families are separated and loved ones are missing. Everyone is reeling from unexpected loss.

Tomashino sees the ripple effect of the tsunami ten years later. A detective in the prefecture’s police department, Tomashino lands a bizarre murder case. The scene could appear in David Fincher’s Se7en or a similarly grisly tale. The victim is ensnared in a sort of man-made web. There are no visible signs of trauma on the victim’s body. Tomashino and his team learn that the victim died due to dehydration and starvation. It’s an awful and prolonged death. The killer’s motive must therefore be grievous.

When a second body appears, however, with the victim’s life depleted in the same fashion, a connection proves fruitful. They’re both social workers. Tomashino quickly deduces the motive and, haunted by the foul stench of death that soaked the aftermath of the tsunami, hones in on the killer. This taut and thoughtful film, nominated for several Japanese Academy Awards (but understandably lost to Drive My Car), is a moody consideration of crimes both violent and institutional.


The “Who” vs. the “Why”

In the Wake weaves between Tomashino’s story and that of the younger Yasuhisa Tone (Takeru Satoh). Tone marks his ten-year anniversary of the tsunami by attempting a fresh start on life. He’s on parole following an arson charge and, literally and figuratively, welding his life back together.


Tone emerges, somewhat predictably, as a key suspect in the murders. This information isn’t a spoiler, since even the production notes and official synopses reveal as much. However, in downplaying the “who,” In the Wake accentuates the “why.”

What follows is a riveting examination of the social systems that fail the citizens they’re meant to protect. In the Wake burrows into the complexity of Japan’s social welfare system. Its death toll arguably surpasses that of the earthquake and tsunami. It’s an ongoing flood of indifference and neglect.

The film weaves between past and present as the younger Tomashino and the much younger Tone recover in 2011. Strong performances by Abe, Satoh, and co-star Kaya Kiyohara (as noble welfare worker) fuel this provocative social thriller. One loses his wife and son, while the other loses his parents. However, as the film observes the paths that ultimately converge, In the Wake discerns how people recover differently from disparate traumas. Tone finds himself in the care of his elderly neighbour Kei Toshima (Mitsuko Baisho) even though she’s very needy. As he grows older, he returns the care she gave him. Toshima’s kindness is a cyclical wave, but it brews a deadly undercurrent in the young man.


Rebuilding Upon Decay

In the Wake asks how a society can leave others to die in the face of massive devastation. Moreover, the film considers why a traumatic event mobilizes a nation when mundane tragedy occurs daily. Characters speak of the country’s flawed approach to welfare and the film uses the soapbox to good effect. When some of the welfare workers note that only one percent of Japan’s citizens are on welfare, their tone oscillates ambiguously between shame and pride. Yet the grisly crimes in Sendai bring the rampant inequality out of hiding. The nation might be rebuilding, but it’s doing so on a foundation of decay.


Zeze makes shrewd use of the urban setting to illustrate how society protects some and leaves others vulnerable. A massive seawall borders the shoreline to prevent further catastrophe, yet images of devastation are everywhere. Buildings remain marked by floodlines, while detritus and sites of ruin are everywhere Tomashino looks while piecing together the motive. What emerges in his detective work is a new kind of disaster film: one that sees the worst is yet to come even though the devastation, unlike the earthquake, is wholly preventable.


In the Wake screens at the Toronto Japanese Film Festival on Saturday, June 25 at 7:00pm.