In January 2013 Eiga Geijutsu magazine released its annual “Best 10 and Worst 10” lists. The two worst films of 2012, as chosen by the magazine’s panel of critics, were Sion Sono’s “Himizu” and “Kibo no Kuni (Land of Hope).” The former is about a teenage boy (Shota Sometani) driven to violence by his abusive father, but Sono rewrote the script — which was based on a manga by Minoru Furuya — to reflect the human cost of the Great East Japan Earthquake and resulting disasters of March 11, 2011. One addition in the rewrite was an elderly disaster victim (Tetsu Watanabe) who has lost everything but still tries to help the troubled young hero.
For “Land of Hope,” Sono wrote a story set in a near-future Japan that has learned nothing from the reactor meltdowns at the Fukushima No. 1 nuclear plant. When a similar catastrophe occurs, hazmat-suited men set up a fence around a no-go zone, dividing two neighboring families in a rural community — to devastating results.
Why the bashing from Eiga Geijutsu? “Sono is a good director, but . . . making such films so soon after such a big, shocking disaster is just shallow,” said critic Ken Terawaki in explaining his thumbs-down verdict. He didn’t, however, similarly condemn the many documentary filmmakers who had streamed north after 3/11 and rushed out films, including the 29 that the Yamagata International Documentary Film Festival screened in October 2011 — or, for that matter, the hundreds of 3/11-themed programs made by NHK and other broadcasters local, national and foreign.
Why not leave the immediate reporting of this national tragedy to the nonfiction professionals and wait a decent interval until weighing in with a fiction film? Sono’s answer to me, in an interview timed for the October 2012 release of “Land of Hope,” was that the Japanese media reported the public face of the victims, but not their private reality.
“When the camera was on, they said something different from what they had told me,” he explained. “I realized that they would be more honest if I didn’t film them and just listened sincerely.”
He told me he had talked to dozens of victims before fictionalizing their stories. That didn’t sound so shallow to me.
It will soon be the fourth anniversary of the worst calamity in Japan since the atomic bombings of World War II struck Hiroshima and Nagasaki. Has enough time passed to begin making fiction films about 3/11? In fact, films have been made, but none have received the critical drubbing that Sono’s got from Eiga Geijutsu. (Truth be told, the magazine’s critics regularly dump on Sono’s non-3/11 films as well, with the exception of “Ai no Mukidashi [Love Exposure],” which was listed as one of the “Best 10” films from 2009.)
One was “Itai: Asu e no Tokakan (Reunion),” Ryoichi Kimizuka’s docudrama based on the true story of an elderly volunteer (Toshiyuki Nishida) who cares for the dead and their grieving loved ones at a temporary morgue in Kamaishi, Iwate Prefecture. The film, with its starkly realistic scenes of corpses and rescue workers, was hardly a typical project for Kimizuka and executive producer (now president and COO of Fuji TV) Chihiro Kameyama, who had previously worked together on the megahit “Odoru Daisosasen (Bayside Shakedown)” cop thriller series. Despite the participation of these hit-makers, “Reunion” earned only ¥370 million following its February 2012 release.
Another was “Arekara (Since Then),” Makoto Shinozaki’s indie drama about a couple torn apart in the 3/11 aftermath, with the woman stranded in Tokyo and the man suffering a nervous breakdown in the affected Tohoku region. Released in theaters in March 2013, the film captured the anxious mood in Tokyo immediately after the disaster in Fukushima, when everyone was waiting for the nuclear shoe to drop.
Still another was Nao Kubota’s “Ieji (Homeland),” which opened in March 2014. As documentarian Kubota’s fiction-feature debut, the film mixed evocative footage of abandoned towns and fields in Fukushima with the story of a farming family living in temporary housing who are slowly going to pieces. Then a long-missing son (Kenichi Matsuyama) returns with a quixotic plan to plant the irradiated family fields. Though the film touches on sensitive topics, such as the long-term dependence of working-age nuclear refugees on government money, its stance is finally closer to resigned acceptance than Sono’s outspoken resistance to the powers that be.
Meanwhile, 3/11-themed documentaries continue to be made, such as “Futaba Kara Toku Hanarete Dainibu (Nuclear Nation II),” Atsushi Funahashi’s recently released follow-up to his hard-hitting 2012 documentary on a Fukushima town that once embraced the nuclear plant in its neighborhood, but is now dealing with the disaster’s lasting damage to the local economy and social fabric.
Also, NHK veteran Atsunori Kawamura has made “Otsunami 3.11 Mirai e no Kioku (The Great 3.11 Tsunami: Remembering for the Future),” a 3-D documentary opening on March 21 that records tsunami survivors and their communities over a three-year period. And Mayu Nakamura has shot “Naoto Hitorikkiri (Alone in Fukushima),” a documentary about a man caring for abandoned animals in the shadow of the Fukushima nuclear reactors, set for release on April 18.
Fiction films, however, remain thin on the ground, which strikes me as unfortunate. The entire 3/11 story is replete with drama, from the story of the “Fukushima 50” who tirelessly battled — at the risk of their lives — to keep the crippled reactors from blowing sky high to the political, bureaucratic and corporate finagling, and bumbling surrounding the Fukushima plant debacle, from construction to cleanup. Instead of a major film about 3/11, however, the local industry is churning out the usual mysteries and teenage romances, as well as WWII dramas to commemorate the 70th anniversary of the end of the conflict in August. The story of Japanese victimization in that long-ago tragedy never grows old.
“The theme of nuclear power is still taboo in Japan,” Sono told me two years ago. “Investors here said to 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.’ ” Waiting for a “suitable” amount of time to pass, as Terawaki suggested, would hardly soften that resistance. Instead, as the current administration pushes for the restart of nuclear plants and the memories of 3/11 fade, it has, if anything, become stronger.
I would love for Toho or any other studio to prove me wrong.