Nuclear Nation (2013)
Director Atsushi Funahashi Documentary96 minutes
Review by Joyce Kulhawik December 11, 2013
At one point in this new Japanese documentary about the Fukushima Daiichi power plant disaster, the camera focuses on a sign above a town turned to rubble. Loosely translated, the sign says, “Atomic energy makes our town prosperous.” One can’t help but recall another sign, “Arbeit Macht Frei,” hovering above the site of another human tragedy. The mocking words in each case point up the horror beyond. But in the case of Fukushima the tragedy involves a conundrum of culpability, and the reaction to the immediate disaster has been strangely muffled. “Nuclear Nation” means to make some noise, but is only partially successful. If you were looking for a documentary to blow the lid off the secrecy around the extent of the destruction, and lack of restitution—in other words outrage à la Michael Moore—you will not find it here, but there is much that is worthy and troubling.
What you will find is a young filmmaker, Atsushi Funahashi, who uses his camera as silent witness to what, up to now, has not been fully seen and acknowledged. Here’s what we already knew: On March 11, 2011, a devastating earthquake and tsunami hit Japan causing a hydrogen explosion at the number 1 reactor at Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power station; radiation was released. The town of Futaba, 3 kilometers from the explosion, was ordered to evacuate immediately and those who fled had no time to take anything—not clothes, not food, not pets or livestock. Eventually, two more reactors would be crippled. The earthquake and tsunami left 20,000 dead or missing in northeastern Japan.
The filmmakers started shooting within three weeks of the disaster to show us what we didn’t know. The movie opens quietly—with the sound of wind and a shot of reactors in the hazy distance, then a close-up on cherry blossoms catching the breeze on a spring day. We later learn that the wind blew radiation in the direction of those fleeing ground zero. We also learn that the Japanese government failed to report the level of radiation and those residents were contaminated. Fourteen hundred of Futaba’s inhabitants fled to an abandoned high school 250 kilometers away, and a year later, 500 still live there on the floor, in classrooms, eating rice gruel, trying to pass the time, mourning their dead relatives and friends, and feeling betrayed by a government and a corporation (The Tokyo Electric Power Company, TEPCO) that has not apologized to them individually or told them what will become of their town or if they might ever go home.
Home is now a landscape leveled; people cloaked in masks and protective garb have been gradually allowed back briefly to gather belongings from splintered homes. But it’s the sight of the rotted, mummified corpses of livestock, left behind to die a slow death from starvation, that sickened me most, and that tacitly carries the film’s message: the inhabitants who worked the plants have been left behind in the dark, not knowing what’s to become of them.