Friday, July 17, 2020

Japan Cuts ’20: Fukushima 50

Thanks to the fifty brave plant workers, the 2011 Fukushima nuclear emergency was not Chernobyl. It wasn’t Apollo 13 either, thanks to irresponsible behavior of government and utility executives. Nevertheless, the courage and sacrifice of those who stayed behind at the Fukushima Daiichi power station has made them folk heroes. Their story is told in Setsuro Wakamatsu’s Fukushima 50, which screens as the official centerpiece of the Japan Society’s Japan Cuts Festival of New Japanese Film (all virtual this year).

Initially, 50 of the 800 Daiichi plant employees stayed, but eventually their ranks swelled to 580, including firefighters and sub-contractors. Fifty is still a nice round number. It wasn’t really anyone’s fault. The combined effects of the earthquake and tsunami (the shifting tectonic plates actually lowered the protective sea-barrier) just set off a chain of disastrous events. Of course, site superintendent Masao Yoshida is best qualified to lead the crisis response, but he is constantly micro-managed and second-guessed by Tokyo Electric Power (TEPCO) executives in the capitol, as well as the Prime Minister’s office.

Fortunately, he can rely on the cool head and expert advice of his old colleague, Toshio Isaki, the shift supervisor. He was on-duty in the control room of the most critical reactor. It will also be Isaki who assigns “suicide squads” of veteran employees in a desperate attempt to relieve pressure on the containment facilities and cool the core.

Fukushima 50
is an unabashedly old-fashioned, but immediately gripping ripped-from-the-headlines disaster movie. There are some reasonably impressive catastrophe effects in the first act, but most of the tension comes from the claustrophobic setting and steadily escalating stakes.

Ken Watanabe and Koichi Sato play Yoshida and Isaki with the grizzled dignity and gritty professionalism they deserve. They project intelligence and soul-weary exhaustion. Together, they portray Japanese salaryman at their finest. Narumi Yasuda further humanizes the plant personnel playing Mari Asano, an administrative manager, who has several poignant scenes with Watanabe.

Aside from a few manipulative flashbacks, Wakamatsu maintains high levels of tension, realism, and outrage. Yet, Yoichi Maekawa’s adaptation of Ryusho Kadota’s narrative non-fiction book never feels as overtly anti-nuclear as
China Syndrome. (Realistically, Japan doesn’t have a feasible power alternative.) It is easy to follow the tick-tock of events and the characters look and feel very real, in a down-to-earth way. Sadly, it is embarrassing to watch the Obama administration’s callous response, but at least the USAF General who personally spearheads a humanitarian relief mission offers us some national redemption. (Wakamatsu and Maekawa didn’t have to put him in, so we should appreciate the effort). Highly recommended as a recent historical and a disaster film, Fukushima screens virtually for two weeks starting today (7/17-7/30) as the centerpiece of the 2020 Japan Cuts.