Wednesday, October 26, 2016

Surviving the Tsunami: Kyoko Miyake’s Atomic Aunt

Before the tsunami, Kuniko Asada had most of the milestone events in Namie, Fukushima covered. She ran a wedding chapel, a funeral parlor, and a patisserie, for coffee and pastries in between. She remains quite an entrepreneur, but the future of her beloved home town is very much in doubt. Expatriate filmmaker Kyoko Miyake returned home to document her indomitable aunt during a challenging time of transition and the fate of her beloved Namie in Surviving the Tsunami: My Atomic Aunt (trailer here), which premieres this Sunday on PBS's World Channel, as part of the current season of Doc World.

Namie was the sort of idyllic coastal village you might expect to see in a Kore-eda film. As a young girl, Miyake always enjoyed the sunny weather and relaxed rhythms during her summer visits. Only after 3/11 did she realize how whole-heartedly the community welcomed in the Tokyo Electric Power Co. (TEPCO) nuclear plant. Like so many provincial communities, Namie lacked the necessary opportunities to retain young residents. The Fukushima power plant seemed like exactly the sort of economic development the town needed.

Of course, things look very different now. Throughout most of the film, Asada anxiously awaits the government’s verdict whether Namie will ever be habitable again. She definitely turns against nuclear power—and to some extent Miyake does too, but as a Tokyo resident she realized all the electricity the city consumed must be generated somehow.

Indeed, Miyake and her aunt are fully aware of the contradictions and hypocrisies of post-Fukushima life. These often manifest in poignant ways, as when Miyake catches Asada watering her plants during her brief salvaging trips home, because how could she not? There are telling scenes like that throughout the film, as well as a few wince-inducing moments, such as an embarrassing TEPCO promotional video from what looks like early 1990s, assuring viewers the plant was built high enough to withstand a tsunami. (To be fair, that was sort of true, but tragically they did not take into account the buckling effect of the preceding earthquake).

Miyoko’s Aunt Kuniko is indeed a lovely and dignified woman, but ultimately it is her enterprising nature that gives us hope for a redemptive future. She represents the best of the Japanese national character, but ironically that stoic resiliency let the rest of the world basically forget the continuing struggles of the Fukushima region. Highly recommended as a dramatic personal story and a wider reality check, the Women Make Movies-supported Surviving the Tsunami: My Atomic Aunt premieres this Sunday (10/30) on PBS World.