Environment Film

Powerless Towns in Fukushima

Nuclear Nation II is a Window into the Lives at Ground Zero.

Futaba, a small coastal city in the Fukushima Prefecture of Japan, is where the TEPCO Daiichi nuclear power site failed, on March 11, 2011, following a terrible earthquake and tsunami. Even were the nuclear site to have withstood the impact — or had it never been built — the town would have been faced with tremendous reconstruction efforts. But because the land was contaminated, reconstruction remains uncertain, as TEPCO scientists assure citizens with an optimistic viewpoint and other scientists say that radiation could continue for hundreds of years.

The town had ancient roots, it was a place where people honored their ancestors, continued the spiritual practice of Shinto, and maintained ties to the agrarian way of life. Futaba was more than forty years modernized and economically enriched, thanks to nuclear energy and the corporate culture inherent to it. That culture couldn’t really change the town, but when systems failed at Daiichi, thousands became refugees. Communities divided while ancient properties became wasteland, and the stewards of history were relegated to evacuation centers. The young have moved on while the elderly remain, fighting to retain their homes and to be compensated for their losses.

Nuclear Nation II is not a sensational film, and there is no call to action. It does not provide a strong educational component either, unless you feel that understanding people is educational. That seems to get lost in the intention of so many documentarians, especially when information is used as a knife against certain groups, for political gain. As the finale to Northwest Film Center’s Japanese Currents film series, it reflects on NWFC’s curation, as I have enjoyed documentaries from them where I feel plugged directly into the people in question.

A woman makes do with provisions in a former school turned evacuation center.

I found it quite enjoyable to watch on a lazy Sunday afternoon, actually, and I didn’t feel particularly outraged by the end. Although there are things to be upset about, I wasn’t urged to take sides. As cinema, it is visually striking, but not too stylized. The editing makes for a patchwork of stories that don’t always overlap, but generally move chronologically. Narration is minimal, sometimes provided by television sets in shelters while refugees eat pre-packaged meals, and passing the time over tea — because thats all they have at this point. Broad information by text keeps you on track with the political situation, split up by season and year, but it continues to revolve around the refugees.

While this film portrays the government response and the corporate solutions in a negative light, it does so only by following the people of Futaba, and listening to them. The documentary is sequel to Nuclear Nation, released in 2012, which deals immediately in the aftermath of the disaster. Starting here, you piece together a background by following some of the same people from the New Year of 2012 through the fall of 2014. Clocking in just under two hours, the film moves at a slow and steady pace.

The Mayor, Katsutaka Idogawa, is removed from office by a vote of no confidence from his council. Residents are upset with that, in large part because, they say, “This is the time to work together.” There is this sense of shame for having a dysfunctional government, because it breaks culturally rooted codes of conduct. The Mayor was ousted because he ignored procedure and turned away from his council, but what becomes evident also is that he asks for more transparency and compensation than TEPCO or the Ministry of Environment are willing to give. Popular opinion appears to be that he fought the good fight.

The Saito family, whose ancestors include legitimate samurai warriors, go back 16 generations in Futaba, and are among those seeking damages. Their historic estate is just one of so many homes, rich and poor, being undervalued in compensation plans. The property owners are relegated to temporary housing and evacuation centers. By watching many elderly and middle-aged victims, hearing them, observing their ways, and accepting the wisdom they bring, you might begin to wonder why it is so important to develop civilization as we know it, at all.

The ways of the people of Futaba are different from those of Tokyo — a metropolitan city like New York. Tokyo, the most populated city in the world, is actually where that power was going. While the people of Tokyo argue about the economic benefits of nuclear, the impossibility of burning coal, they are suffering from man-made economic recession, and no more. The people of Futaba are powerless in changing their destiny, suffering from nuclear fallout. Their frustration is palpable as we watch a nation repeat the nuclear mantra.

Nuclear Nation II screened Sunday evening at Whitsell Auditorium, presented by Northwest Film Center. The film is not yet available for the general public.

Bags of contaminated soil pile up in Futaba farm land.
Bags of contaminated soil pile up in Futaba farm land.
Sean Ongley

By Sean Ongley

Co-Founder of THRU Media. A background in non-profit, music, and radio preceded my ambitions here. Now, I aspire to produce new media and publish independent journalism at this site and beyond.

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