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Sono: ‘Disaster survivors spoke more frankly to me than to NHK’

by Mark Schilling

Special To The Japan Times

Sion Sono is known for making extreme films that get invited to major festivals. One is “Himizu,” a drama set near the Tohoku disaster zone post-March 11, 2011, and whose abused teenage hero seethes with violent rage — and unleashes it on a classmate equally ill-treated by her parents. When it screened at the Venice Film Festival last year, its two young leads won the Marcello Mastroianni Award for outstanding performances by new actors.

Despite the accolades abroad, Sono found it hard to raise finance at home for his new feature, “Kibo no Kuni (The Land of Hope),” which depicts the human cost of a Fukushima-like reactor disaster in a rural town in the near future.

“The theme of nuclear power is still taboo in Japan,” Sono explains at the office of distributor Bitters Ends, which released the film on Oct. 20. “Investors here told me, ‘You can make a movie on anything you want, we’ll finance it,’ but when I mentioned nuclear power, they went, ‘Ah, no, we can’t do that,’ ” he says with a laugh. “I finally ended up getting the money from England and Taiwan, which for me as a Japanese is truly regrettable.”

While stressing that “Himizu” and “The Land of Hope” are different in approach — the earlier film focuses on the aftermath of last year’s earthquake and tsunami, the latter on a fictional nuclear-reactor meltdown, Sono acknowledges that both have their origins in 3/11.

“Making one film on the disaster planted the seeds for the second,” he says. “The seeds have kept sprouting and now I have to make one film after another on this theme. It’s like giving birth to kids: You just have to raise them, no matter what.”

Though hundreds of news programs and documentaries have been made about the triple disaster by the mass media, Sono claims they often do not tell the truth about the victims’ real feelings, preferring instead to show their public face.

“The people I had connections with spoke frankly to me, but when NHK interviewed them, they went like this,” he says, making a faux-polite face, “and talked about how hard it was. When the camera was on, they said something different from what they had told me. I realized that they would be more honest if I didn’t film them and just listened sincerely.”

Sono spoke with dozens of victims and, when he finally wrote the script, put in what much of the news media had left out, including not-always-noble words and emotions.

“Some people got angry at me and criticized me when I went into the disaster area for ‘Himizu,’ ” he says, “so some may get angry at me for making the same kind of film again, but I’m ready for it. I’ve already made it, so what can I do about it?”

The story, about two neighboring families arbitrarily separated by a 20-km exclusion zone, with the fence going right through the property of one, “actually happened,” says Sono.

“It’s based on a family I met while I was doing my research. One day, there was a fence suddenly going up right through their garden. They couldn’t even go into it, so their flower bed dried up. The (exclusion) zone was made round, like with a compass, so you had these weird situations with gardens or even houses being cut in half. It was like something out of Kafka. My film is not Kafka-esque; reality is Kafka-esque.”

Sono also defends depictions of the characters, such as the paranoid and pregnant Izumi (Megumi Kagurazaka), that he admits are “cartoony and extreme.”

“If you were to wear a Tyvek (coverall) suit the way (Izumi) did, you would be totally protected from radiation, but people would laugh at you,” he comments. “But she may be right, however strange she looks.”

Also, the film’s title, he insists, is not ironic, “though at first it may seem that way.”

“I didn’t want to lie,” he adds. “If I had found only despair, I might have made a despairing movie. The ‘Hope’ in ‘The Land of Hope’ is not ironic, but it naturally turned out that way in the course of making the film. I wasn’t trying to fake anything.”