Although narrator Sumalee Montano (an American actress of Filipina and Thai/Chinese descent with a Harvard degree) lists Japanese as one of her specialty accents on her résumé – she also lists “Asian gibberish,” I kid you not! – any supposed proficiency disappears with actual Japanese names and words: “Junie-cheeeeero” in spite of the distinguished first syllable in Jun’ichiro, “Koh-BEE” instead of Kobe, oh my. That said, to blame the narrator is ultimately misdirected; irresponsible (lazy?!) audible producers who are incapable of employing a reader who is actually familiar with the language featured in a title seem to be the norm. Again and again, careless casting does grave injustice to otherwise well-written, important titles. Might I repeat: choose the page!
Gretel Ehrlich – award-winning journalist, novelist, poet of 15 titles, and a rancher and filmmaker, as well – travels to Japan three months after the tragic March 11, 2011 Tōhoku earthquake that triggered a powerful tsunami which then caused one of the world’s worst nuclear meltdowns in Fukushima. The devastation is understandably wrenching as she travels along the Tōhoku coast, sharing with survivors their overwhelming losses of home, possessions, and friends and family.
Beyond the harrowing tragedies, however, Ehrlich finds the most life-affirming stories amidst so much cataclysmic death and destruction: a mother who lost her daughter obtains a backhoe license so she can dig for the still-missing; horse and dog rescuers who realize that “many people died … but the animals didn’t even have a chance to run for their lives’”; a stranger who, when he learns Ehrlich is American, asks her to thank the U.S.Navy for providing food, clothing, and water right after the tsunami when no one else could reach his village.
Perhaps the most memorable of all features 84-year-old geisha Tsuyako Ito, “the ‘last geisha of Kamaishi.’” Geisha rarely travel, and “[e]ach region of Japan holds on to its own traditional acts, and they are never passed from one region to another,” Ehrlich explains. “But the March disaster changed protocol and erased territorial boundaries.” The tragedy of the wave brought Tokyo geisha Megumi Kumura to Ito-san’s village bearing a new shamisen after she read how Ito-san lost everything. Megumi-san left with the “Hamauta, the Bay Song,” which only Ito-san knew in all the world; back in Tokyo, Megumi-san taught her four apprentices. “‘Even though the girls aren’t from here, at least the song will be carried on … As long as someone owns it, it can’t be stolen, or forgotten. I’m so grateful,’” Ito-san exclaims.
Such moments of human connection carry Ehrlich’s memoir forward with hope. She finds the unexpected moments of bonding and laughter, of happy memories and promises for a recovering future. “The Wave was … both destructive and beautiful,” she writes in her “Epilogue”; her eyewitness memoir – chilling and inspiring – captures the same.