Many documentaries have been made about the nuclear-plant disaster in Fukushima and its aftermath, but relatively few feature films. One reason could be seen in the rough handling local critics gave “Kibo no Kuni (The Land of Hope),” Sion Sono’s 2012 film set in a near-future Japan that has again experienced a massive earthquake and reactor meltdowns, having apparently learned nothing from the last time. It was, certain critics complained, too soon for such a fictional treatment, like making a Holocaust drama in 1946.
Undeterred, veteran documentarian Nao Kubota has set his first feature film, “Ieji (Homeland),” in post-3/11 Fukushima. Screened in the Panorama section of this year’s Berlin Film Festival, “Homeland” is totally unlike Sono’s over-amped but impassioned film. Somehow, I think its restrained approach and elegiac tone will strike the aforementioned critics as more appropriate to its subject matter. That is, it’s more like “The Garden of the Finzi-Continis,” Vittorio De Sica’s somberly tragic 1970 drama about a wealthy Jewish family in Fascist Italy, than Steven Spielberg’s 1993 “Schindler’s List,” with its disturbing depictions of Nazi horrors, that has been criticized for “Hollywoodizing” the Holocaust.
Based on an original script by Kenji Aoki, “Homeland” depicts the effects of the disaster on a local farming family, but its story of betrayal, discord and alienation could have unfolded elsewhere in Japan — or the world. Meanwhile, the radiation from the crippled reactors nearby, unseen and insidious, casts a pall of death and defeat over everything. Elegies, I was reminded, may be beautiful — but they’re also delivered at funerals.
The hero, Jiro Sawada (Kenichi Matsuyama), arrives back at the family home in Fukushima after long years of absence. But older half-brother Soichi (Masaaki Uchino) and his wife Misa (Sakura Ando) are living together with Jiro’s senile mother Tomiko (Yuko Tanaka) in temporary housing, outside the exclusion zone now inhabited by feral farm animals — and Jiro.
Jiro’s intention, he tells a former classmate (Takashi Yamanaka), is to farm the land — not to reunite with Soichi and the others. “I came back because no one was here,” he says.
Meanwhile, Misa has resumed her former trade of sex for pay, with Soichi’s reluctant acquiescence. It’s not that the family needs the money: Even though Soichi remains jobless, they are getting enough government support to survive. Misa tells Jiro she can’t stand being cooped up in their tiny flat: Sleeping with strangers at least keeps her sane. Not so fortunate (if that is the word) is Tomiko, who is not only losing her grip on reality, but feels ill at ease living with the son of her old lover (Renji Ishibashi), a bombastic farmer-turned-politician who used and abused both her and Jiro and for his own advantage.
Many a Japanese director has explored similar themes, such as Shohei Imamura with his dark, unsparing films about blood ties that go violently bad, in rural settings that are more maddeningly isolated than inspiringly idyllic.
But Kubota, who has been making documentaries for NHK and private broadcasters since 1982, takes a gentler, more poetic view of his people and their ruined world, including drive-by shots of abandoned fields and deserted towns that express the desolation wrought on Fukushima better than yet more shots of reactors blowing up or elderly evacuees huddled in shelters.
Kubota also brings out inconvenient truths that other filmmakers, trying to paint inspiring pictures of triumph over nuclear adversity, commonly elide, as when Soichi demands that the local cops arrest the powers-that-be responsible for the disaster — and is confronted by other victims who fear that his noisy protests might interrupt the flow of government money into their pockets.
But the film’s preference for the allusive and the reported over the concrete and the direct — the offense that led to Jiro’s departure, in particular, is described more after-the-fact than in-the-moment — makes its drama somewhat less dramatic. It’s almost as though the crimes and misdemeanors that led to the family’s current broken state happened in another lifetime.
Contributing to this abstracted impression is its view of the disaster’s radioactive aftermath, which poisons the land and drives those who once worked it to suicide and despair. Jiro’s attempts to bring life back to that land, with skills years of city life have not dimmed, is idealistic, but also quixotic. The rice he raises so carefully will sicken as well as sustain him — and of course is worthless on the market. “Aren’t you just committing slow suicide?” his old classmate asks him.
“Homeland” offers hope that this may not be so, but it feels wan and forlorn. By contrast, Sono’s film more fully lives up to its title with its characters’ crazed but humanly instinctive resistance against the forces of destruction and annihilation. Kubota wins the good-taste contest, but emotionally, I’m with Sono.