TOKYO — The unnerving clicks of dosimeters are constant as people wearing white protective gear quickly visit the radiated no-go zones of decayed farms and empty storefronts. Evacuees huddle on blankets on gymnasium floors, waiting futilely for word of compensation and relocation.
Such scenes fill the flurry of independent films inspired by Japan’s March 2011 catastrophe that tell stories of regular people who became overnight victims — stories the creators feel are being ignored by mainstream media and often silenced by the authorities.
Nearly two years after the quake and tsunami disaster, the films are an attempt by the creative minds of Japan’s movie industry not only to confront the horrors of the worst nuclear disaster since Chornobyl, but also to empower and serve as a legacy for the victims by telling their stories for international audiences.
The impact these films have on the global and Japanese audiences could perhaps even help change Japan, the directors say.
What’s striking is that many of the works convey a prevailing message: The political, scientific and regulatory establishment isn’t telling the whole truth about the nuclear disaster. And much of the public had been in the past ignorant and uncaring about Fukushima.
And so the films were needed, the auteurs say. The people leading Japan were too evasive about the true consequences of the multiple meltdowns at the Fukushima Dai-ichi nuclear plant — minimizing people’s suffering, playing down health risks and shrugging off accountability for past go-go pro-nuclear government policies.
“Japan’s response is ambiguous and irresponsible. But, meanwhile, time is passing,” said Atsushi Funahashi, director of Nuclear Nation, which documents the story of the residents of Futaba, Fukushima, the town where the crippled nuclear plant is located.
The entire town became a no-go zone — contaminated by radiation in the air, water and ground after the tsunami destroyed the plant’s cooling systems, causing meltdowns in three reactors. Decommissioning the reactors is expected to take decades.
Of all Fukushima communities forced to evacuate, Futaba chose the farthest spot from the nuclear plant — an abandoned high school in Saitama prefecture, near Tokyo. That choice Funahashi feels highlights a keen awareness of the dangers of radiation and distrust of officials as the town had been repeatedly told the plant was safe.
The outburst of post-disaster filmmaking includes Americans living in or visiting Japan, such as Surviving Japanby Christopher Noland, Pray for Japan by Stuart Levy, and In the Grey Zone and A2 by Ian Thomas Ash.
The Tsunami and the Cherry Blossom by Lucy Walker, a Briton, was nominated for the 2012 Academy Award for short documentaries.
Both Levy and Noland volunteered in the disaster areas. Ash’s documentaries focus on the plight of the children who continue to live near the nuclear plant and the frightened mothers who suspect the medical authorities are lying about the safety of radiation.
“I believe it is time for Japanese citizens to not just rebuild, but reinvent their country with new leadership,” said Noland, who like many others worries about the children. “I want the people of Japan to know I stand with them.”
Funahashi’s Nuclear Nation, shown at film festivals including Berlin, Seoul and Edinburgh, Scotland, intentionally played out its scenes in real time to communicate the helplessness of the days slipping away for displaced people. Camera close-ups show the cold lunches in boxes being handed out, day after day.
Funahashi is outraged that, so many months later, the Japanese government has yet to properly compensate the 160,000 people who had to leave their homes near Fukushima Dai-ichi. The government set up tiny temporary housing and doled out aid calculated to approximate the minimum wage.
In one moving scene in Nuclear Nation, one of the displaced residents, Masayoshi Watanabe, lights up a cigarette in a car and talks directly into the camera, strangely more movie-like than any Hollywood actor.
“Our town is gone. It’s just land,” he says pensively.
The movie started with 1,400 people in the school building, but that has dwindled lately to about 100. Funahashi is determined to keep filming until the last person leaves.
“The evacuated people are being forgotten,” said Funahashi. “And criminal responsibility is also being forgotten.”
Reputed director Sion Sono has also written and directed the sarcastically titled The Land of Hope, departing from his usual ruthlessly violent avant-garde for a soap-operatic account of an elderly couple who kill themselves after a nuclear catastrophe set in the fictitious future.
Sono’s Himizu, a haunting coming-of-age film set in a surreal Japan hopelessly covered with tsunami debris, is more typical Sono in its raw, dark style, criticizing the adult world as irresponsibly cruel and abusive to this nation’s younger generation that must cope with radiation.
Yojyu Matsubayashi took a more standard documentary approach for his Fukushima: Memories of the Lost Landscape, interviewing people who were displaced in the Fukushima town of Minami Soma.
He followed them into temporary shelters in cluttered gymnasiums and accompanied their harried visits to abandoned homes with the gentle patience of a videojournalist. Japanese mainstream media abandoned the no-go zone, and he felt it was up to freelance reporters like him to tell the true story, especially for the helpless elderly.
“I’ve been making documentaries for some time, but when the nuclear accident happened, I felt I had to be there,” he said. “Once I got there, I knew I had to be there for a long time and express the eternal from that one spot.”
His main message?
He wouldn’t have made a movie if it were all that simple, Matsubayashi said quietly.
“It was human arrogance that led to this disaster, this crisis,” he said. “We thought we could control even nature. And that’s why this happened. Our lives were dependent on electricity from Fukushima. We shouldn’t be making excuses that we didn’t know, that we didn’t care. Maybe that’s why I made this movie.”
Others are finding their work is drawing more attention after Fukushima.
Hitomi Kamanaka, who has devoted her life to documenting radiation issues, such as the struggles over a Japanese nuclear reprocessing plant and sicknesses in Iraq suspected of being caused by uranium bullets, is in the spotlight like never before.
Her 2012 film Living With Internal Exposure compiled the views of four medical experts who studied radiation’s effects in Chornobyl, Hiroshima, Iraq and Fukushima, warning about the health damage that radiation can cause.
Akiyoshi Imazeki began shooting Kalina’s Apple, Forest of Chornobyl in 2003, a film about a girl who falls sick after eating the radiated apples grown on her grandmother’s farm. It was a film he believed in, but he never hoped for massive appeal.
His post-Fukushima 2011 re-edit — with its juxtaposition of pastoral lakes and forests, so much like Fukushima landscapes, with the forlorn faces of children hospitalized for cancer — is striking home with many Japanese.
The film was shot quietly like many Japanese classics, and the cast is entirely Belarusian and Russian. But the dozens of screenings in Fukushima are drawing positive reviews.
“They all cry,” said Imazeki.
Imazeki is convinced the parallels between Fukushima and Chornobyl are striking, and stressed Kalina’s Apple, Forest of Chornobyl dramatizes the tragedy of radiation.
“The invisibility adds to the turmoil,” he said. “Families can no longer live normal happy lives.”