Wednesday, December 11, 2013

Nuclear Nation: Refugees from Fukushima

It is not as if Japan had not taken precautions. However, the combination of the earthquake, tsunami, and the reactor malfunctions in Fukushima created a uniquely tragic set of circumstances that amplified each other.  For instance, there were storm walls responsibly placed to protect coastal communities, but the tectonic activity lowered them below the level of the incoming storm surge.  Yet, for many of the evacuated citizens of Futaba, concerns about the power plant that once provided their livelihood trump fears of future natural disasters.  Atsushi Funahashi documents the Futaba refugees as they cope with post-disaster realities with dignity and resilience in Nuclear Nation (trailer here), which opens today at Film Forum.

Thanks to Mayor Katsutaka Igogawa’s decisive early evacuation, the town of Futaba has a high survival rate.  Still, he carries a heavy burden.  The events of March 2011 left most of his citizens destitute, with questionable prospects for the future.  Nevertheless, as Funahashi documents the months they spend in their makeshift shelter, a converted high school outside of Tokyo, residents slowly but surely move into to more permanent quarters and haltingly pursue closure.

Once reliant on the Tokyo Electric Power Company’s plant, Igogawa has since turned against Japan’s nuclear policies.  Futaba’s relationship with Tepco was already complex.  Once flush with nuclear subsidies, the small town embarked binged on ambitious public works projects, but has fallen deeply into arrears in recent years (just how this is the fault of the power company or the national government is never exactly explained).  To get back in the black, Futaba agreed to host two more reactors, but those will never come to pass now.

Nation is strong on human interest and weak on energy policy.  The experiences of survivors, like the father and teen-aged son mourning his lost mother, are quite moving.  There are a host of small, touching moments in the film, as when a class of early elementary school girls ask the Mayor when they can go home. 

However, Japan’s decision to largely turn off the nuclear switch (which Funahashi obviously agrees with, given his editorial choices) has cost it mightily in terms of its international balance of payments and energy dependency.  A small country like Japan simply does not have a lot of coal stockpiled, so it now imports massive quantities of fossil fuels, thereby increasing global carbon emissions. Despite sensationalistic headlines regarding radiation readings inside the plant, it is a different story outside the containment walls.  In fact, Funahashi includes several ostensibly ironic scenes of the green bucolic countryside throughout the Fukushima district.

Although Funahashi clearly gained intimate access to the daily lives of the Futaba survivors, Nation never feels voyeuristic or exploitative, which is a neat trick to pull off.  It is also a timely reminder that much rebuilding remains to be done (it is also worth noting the Japan Society is still accepting donations for its recovery fund).  Recommended for its humanity rather than its policy advocacy, Nuclear Nation opens today (12/11) at New York’s Film Forum.