From The New Yorker
I first saw “Nuclear Nation,” a haunting documentary about the Fukushima meltdown, at its New York première, late last year. It felt very Japanese to me. Instead of looping the most sensational footage—frothy waves demolishing harbors and main streets, exasperated talking heads—“Nuclear Nation” chronicles, through three seasons, the post-disaster struggles faced by so-called nuclear refugees from the tiny town of Futaba, one of several officially condemned and abandoned communities near the site of the disaster.
The opening sequence of the movie is eerily similar to that of “Akira,” Katsuhiro Otomo’s award-winning animated sci-fi epic from 1988. In both films, a howling wind sounds in the middle distance as the camera focusses on and fetishizes elaborate industrial infrastructure. When the wind suddenly fades to silence, catastrophe ensues: in “Akira,” we see the nuclear cratering of eighties-era Tokyo urban sprawl; in “Nuclear Nation,” it’s the implosion of the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power plant and the subsequent poisoning of farmlands, fisheries, and rural homes. One is a harrowing fiction echoing Japan’s historical nightmares at Hiroshima and Nagasaki; the other is a somber document of an ongoing and very present horror in and around Fukushima, one whose third anniversary is being marked today in Japan with moments of silence and prayer, official memorials, and televised updates on the most current statistics and predictions.
Approximately eighteen thousand people died or were lost in the wake of the March 11, 2011, earthquake, tsunami, and nuclear meltdown, and tens of thousands remain displaced, unable to return to their homes for now, and perhaps forever. The earthquake and tsunami completely erased entire towns from the Google Maps of northern Japan, but the manmade nuclear crisis has unleashed corrosive fallout, literal and otherwise, that is arguably more persistent and bracing. You might lose your home, livelihood, and loved ones to a natural disaster, but it’s hard to strike back at abstract targets like nature and the gods. When an energy conglomerate, government policy, and corruption cause death and displacement, and disfigure your future, you might get motivated.
“I made this film out of anger and guilt,” Atsushi Funahashi, the director of “Nuclear Nation,” told me last month at a café near Union Square. “The gap between the foreign and domestic media and government statements was huge. When the overseas media was calling Fukushima a ‘meltdown,’ the Japanese government and media waited two months before admitting it.”
Funahashi lived in New York for a decade, from 1997 to 2007, during which he earned a degree from the School of Visual Arts and directed feature films. He had no interest in creating documentaries until he confronted what he calls the “ethical dilemma” of the people of Futaba. “There’s something unfair going on,” he said. “I didn’t know until the disasters that the people who are suffering most from the nuclear meltdown were producing my electricity. The electricity from the Fukushima power plant powered people like me in Tokyo. It puts the rural people at risk for my luxury. And now they have lost their homes over it. It’s not enough to feel sorry for them. I’m on the side of the perpetrators, using electricity that is risking other people’s lives.”
“My friends in Tokyo say, ‘No, it’s not you. It’s the politicians in Tokyo and at the Tokyo Power Company who are wrong,’ ” Funahashi went on. “But I say to them, ‘But we use the electricity and vote for the politicians, don’t we?’ ” The most striking passages in “Nuclear Nation” occur when Funahashi takes his camera along to accompany the refugees on monthly two-hour visits to their contaminated homes. Allotted by the government, and based on Geiger readings, the visits are meant to be opportunities for the refugees to reclaim bits of their blasted lives, pasted together in rushed acts of human pathos.
The refugees wear hazmat gear and board a bus in the early morning. In one scene, a married couple tries to collect DVDs of the “Mad Max” film series for their grandparents, hovering over personal photographs tossed by the earthquake onto a heap on the floor. Their eyes widen as they argue over what should be worth packing and taking with them amid the permanent loss of their domesticity.
In another, a husband, who lost his wife to the tsunami and nuclear aftermath, and his son try to perform a proper burial in their visit. But the coastal winds and slashing rains conspire against their most earnest hopes. Their bouquets are flayed by gusts. They keep checking their watches, knowing they have to return to the buses before the clock ticks down. The very peace they seek for themselves and their lost matron is chewed up and spat out by indifferent natural forces. When the weather becomes too hard to bear even for the audience, the son explodes at his father, who is losing control amid the wind and delicacy and humility of the task. “Hurry up!” the son shouts, as his father fumbles with their disintegrating flowers. When the father tries to collect the petals from the surrounding pools, the son shouts, “No, no! Don’t touch the water! Don’t touch it! It’s poison!”
What passes for the main character in “Nuclear Nation,” and in the plight of the unfinishable story of Fukushima, is Futaba’s former mayor, Katsutaka Idogawa. His story anchors the narrative, and it is brutally banal. Humiliated by Tokyo politicians, disappointing his constituency, his final admission is that he trusted others too much, and will never overcome the loss. Idogawa was ousted earlier this year, replaced by a more Tokyo-friendly mayor, Funahashi told me. If you can’t go home again, then “Nuclear Nation,” he promises, is just the first of many installments about a story of human disaster that may never end.
See also Ralph Nader: Nuclear power is “uneconomic, uninsurable, unevacuable, and unnecessary.”