Akiko Kuraoka’s documentaries find fresh relevancy amid Fukushima crisis

by Michael Kleindl

Special To The Japan Times

For Akiko Kuraoka, filmmaker, lecturer and freelance French translator, films have always been her passion. Over a span of nearly four decades, Kuraoka has made three documentaries and is now deep into her fourth. Her films have dealt with chromium pollution, nuclear radiation, war, and the displacement and suffering of people living intimately with those dangers.

Though she produced all three films and co-directed one of them, Kuraoka says filmmaking is not her job. Nor is it her hobby.

She makes her films, which have garnered attention and awards at festivals in France, Scotland, Germany, Hong Kong and throughout Japan, out of a sense of personal responsibility and from a sustained anger at injustice. “We have to be responsible not only for our own life,” she says, “but also for others’ lives.”

Kuraoka credits her critical eyes and attitude to her father.”To protest something was in his nature.”

Kuraoka was born in 1947 in the city of Aomori. Her father, she says, had studied French literature and wanted to become a translator. He didn’t want to become a soldier but eventually had to join the army near the end of the war.

Her father ended up taking over the family’s kimono shop business. And Kuraoka grew up in a household filled with talk about French literature, books and poetry. “So it was natural for me to study that as well,” she says.

She studied philosophy and French literature at Sophia University in Tokyo. After graduation, she worked in the economic department of the French Embassy for several years, then took a position at the Athénée Français Cultural Center organizing shows of Japanese and international films. She also conducted seminars on the technologies and aesthetics of film.

During an interview in a Shinjuku cafe, Kuraoka spoke with directness and energy, often using French words when the English equivalent didn’t come to mind.

“I’ve always been interested in the relationship between technology and civilization,” she says. She starts to list the problems Japan had in the 1960s that were caused by technological development and industrialization. She mentions Minamata disease, the affliction caused by mercury poisoning from a chemical plant; and itai-itai disease recognized in 1968 as being caused by cadmium poisoning from mines.

In the early 1970s, Kuraoka became interested in the chromium pollution problem caused by old chemical factories in Koto and Edogawa wards in Tokyo. With no formal training in filmmaking and no financial backing, she decided to document the damage to those neighborhoods and the local people, so as to make the problem known to a wider audience.

The film, “Live in Tokyochrome,” was directed by her husband at the time, Nobuki Yamamura, who had studied directing and editing. Finished in 1978, the film was shown with much acclaim in Japan and France. “Serious soil contamination from chromium still persists in those wards today,” she adds.

Work on her second film, “The People of Rokkasho” (1985), which she co-directed with Yamamura, began in 1980 when Kuraoka became interested in the lives of Aomori women who had to carry on alone for six months a year when their husbands, mostly fishermen and farmers, left during the long severe winter to find work elsewhere in Japan. “I was interested in interviewing those women,” she recalls, “to ask them how they ended up in Aomori. And how they managed to live.”

In 1982 the couple started working seriously on the film. During their summer vacations they would go to Aomori to interview and film residents of the village of Rokkasho, while the rest of the year they took up other jobs to make enough money to finance the film.

Then in January 1984, the Federation of Electric Power Companies of Japan announced to the Aomori people their plan to build three nuclear fuel facilities near Rokkasho: a reprocessing plant (including a high-level waste storage center), a uranium enrichment plant and a low-level radioactive waste disposal center.

“The focus of the film completely changed after that announcement,” says Kuraoka. The film took a three-year-long look at village life in Rokkasho — the slow loss of traditions, the changing sense of community, and the attitudes of the local residents in reaction to industrialization and the eventual development of the nuclear complex.

The film won a special award at the Mannheim International Film Festival in 1986. That same year it was also shown in the George Pompidou Center in Paris.

The third film, “Summer Homework Left Undone: Living Next Door to Nuclear Reprocessing Facility” (1989), touches on some of the same issues raised in the previous film.

In 1985, the Rokkasho nuclear development plan was approved by the Aomori Prefectural Government. “We wanted to know the consequences of such a development,” she says. The cities of La Hague in France and Sellafield in northwest England had similar reprocessing facilities, “and we decided to go see how residents there coped with that situation.”

Three years later, Kuraoka and Yamamura were able to travel for a month interviewing and filming the testimonies of the local English and French residents who, says Kuraoka, suffered from health problems caused by years of living next to nuclear fuel reprocessing plants.

The films “The People of Rokkasho” and “Summer Homework Left Undone” have apparently not lost their relevance nor their power to move people. In February 2011, Kuraoka got a call from a Japanese theater chain asking her to speak and to show those two films the following April to mark the 25th anniversary of the 1986 Chernobyl disaster.

“Then the March 11 disaster happened,” says Kuraoka, referring to the Great East Japan Earthquake, tsunami and subsequent nuclear reactor meltdowns in Fukushima. “So, plenty of people came to see my movies.” She has since been invited to lecture and show those films in venues across Japan.

After 3/11, many people came out against nuclear energy and huge demonstrations were held against restarting reactors, “but the results of the December 2012 election was a catastrophe,” she says. The re-election of conservative lawmakers guaranteed continued use of nuclear power in this country, she says, adding that the election showed that the Japanese people “learned nothing” from Hiroshima and Nagasaki, Chernobyl or Fukushima.

She also criticized the French and Japanese governments, which, during a June meeting between visiting President Francois Hollande and Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, extolled Japan’s nuclear technology and agreed to jointly promote export of nuclear power plants to other countries. “That’s nonsense! Those plants in Fukushima leak every day!” she says, referring to the radiation-contaminated groundwater escaping from the Tokyo Electric Power Co. plant.

Still, Kuraoka says she’s not an activist. “I show my movies, so that individuals can think for themselves, and start to learn, or study, and act by their own subjective judgment,” she says.

Her latest film project concerns Palestinian children. More than 10 years ago, a French professor asked her to help show a few Palestinian films in Tokyo. “I started to help, and I saw several movies that really impressed me.”

She saw how international groups helped Palestinian children by teaching them practical skills like sewing. But even if children learn such skills, “there are no jobs, no future,” she says. “And for children, having no future is the worst thing in the world.”

Again, Kuraoka wanted to see the situation for herself. So, for two weeks in December 2003, she and Yamamura went to the West Bank, Gaza and Jerusalem to film and conduct interviews. But for various personal reasons, nothing happened with the film for several years. She went back to Sophia University to get a doctorate in French literature, and in 2006 she and Yamamura divorced.

“I decided to continue the film alone,” she says. “But I also understood that without being able to speak the Arabic language, it’s nothing. So I started to learn Arabic.” In 2008, she went back to the Palestinian territory by herself to see what had changed. Then in 2010, she went to Lebanon and Syria to visit Palestinians living in refugee camps. In 2012, Kuraoka went again for 20 days to film in the West Bank.

“I want to be useful somehow to the Palestinian people” because she feels they are neglected, she says, adding that she intends to finish the film this year.

“Also, my main objective is to show Japanese young people that they need to go outside of Japan and see what’s happening in the world,” she says. “Individual responsibility is essential. We must study by ourselves. Our knowledge shouldn’t depend on the government.”

This month, Kuraoka will be in Aomori working on the Palestinian film, arranging more showings of her earlier films, and checking on the people of Rokkasho, where the reprocessing of spent nuclear fuel has not yet started after so many years.

For further information, or to enquire about a showing of her films, contact akkuraoka@hotmail.com .