The earthquake, tsunami and reactor meltdowns of March 2011 may have faded from the world’s consciousness, but for many Japanese filmmakers, both young and old, it has been a life- and career-defining event. Documentary makers, especially, have gone north by the dozens to film the aftermath and interview the survivors, to the point where seemingly every angle has been explored — or exploited.
But similar to the major events inspiring previous generations of filmmakers here, from atomic bombings to environmental poisonings, new stories keep coming to light.
Yoju Matsubayashi centered his 2011 documentary “Soma Kanka Daiichibu: Ubawareta Tochi no Kioku (Fukushima: Memories of the Lost Landscape)” on the people of Minamisoma, a coastal town devastated by the tsunami and lying partly within the 20 km exclusion zone set up around the crippled Fukushima No. 1 nuclear power plant.
Matsubayashi’s new feature documentary “Matsuri no Uma (The Horses of Fukushima)” again took him to Minamisoma, this time to film the title animals, though the humans who care for and ride them also get ample screen time. Why horses specifically and not the thousands of cats, dogs and farm animals also trapped in the zone — and mostly left to starve and die?
Visually, Matsubayashi supplies stunning answers in shots of horses shivering in the cold, cavorting in the meadow or, weeks after being abandoned by their evacuated owners, dead on the ground. In contrast to filmmakers more concerned with ideas or causes than aesthetics, Matsubayashi is a talented visual artist, adept at capturing beauty or pathos with a sure, practiced eye for the most striking angle, the most evocative lighting.
As a storyteller, however, his selection and shaping of his material is less certain. What, I kept asking myself as tone and focus kept shifting, is he trying to say? What begins as something of a shocking expose morphs into a picture-pretty animal documentary and tourist promo — and then back again. Matsubayashi, I realized at the end, has told at least two different stories that never quite come together.
The first is one about horses pummeled by the tsunami, blasted by radiation and left to fend for themselves in the chill Fukushima March. One stable owner, Shinichiro Tanaka, returns two weeks after March 11 to find seven of his 38 horses dead of starvation, while the survivors are severely undernourished.
Tanaka, who raises horses as a business and sells them for slaughter when they are no longer fit for racing or riding, nonetheless can’t bear to dispose of them now his income has plunged to zero. “It’s my fault for not feeding them and for causing some of them to die,” he explains. Defying a government order to kill all farm animals in the exclusion zone, he fights and wins an exception for his horses.
Soon after, they are taken to a city-owned stable where they begin a long rehabilitation. One is a winless racehorse named Mirror Quest whose penis is painfully swollen and elongated from infection. He becomes the film’s hero, with his injured member serving as an unlikely symbol for the disaster’s toll — and the recovery’s slow progress.
Another such symbol, and a big reason why the horses are allowed to live, is the Soma Namaoi, a three-day summer festival with a 1,000-year history in which local men dressed in full samurai regalia race horses and play a traditional capture-the-flying-banner game on horseback. It’s colorful and thrilling, and the story of Mirror Quest gets a bit lost in the jostling crowds of men and horseflesh.
Not that the film loses sight of him and his equine companions; in fact, they are all fitted out for the festival, but I began to wonder more about the men riding them, who seem to materialize out of nowhere. Isn’t the story of the festival’s survival and the town’s recovery theirs as well?
Instead of expanding on this human element, the film gives us a formally impressive sequence that contrasts the modern festival with a feudal-era predecessor depicted on a gorgeously detailed picture scroll. Wonderful to see but what, I had to ask yet again, did this have to do with exploding reactor buildings, let alone poor Mirror Quest, whose penis, we are told again and again, as well as shown in close-up after close-up, will never regain its natural, uh, elasticity?
At the end, however, I wasn’t sorry I had spent 74 minutes with “The Horses of Fukushima,” as slowly as some of them passed and as confused as some of them seemed. The film supplied some hard-won insights into an aspect of the disaster I hadn’t considered — as well as a good reason to visit Minamisoma next July, even if the doughty Mirror Quest has been put out to pasture or, as the film unsparingly hints, in the meat locker.
Fun fact: “Matsuri no Uma (The Horses of Fukushima)” has been screened at festivals in Korea, Japan, Holland, Lebanon and, most recently, Dubai, whose festival logo features a galloping horse.