NEW YORK – Nobuteru Uchida hopes his film on Japan’s struggle to recover from the calamity of March 2011 will prompt dialogue and promote tolerance, since public opinion on the risks of low-level radiation remains divided.
“I wanted to make a film that has a message — which is we can’t move forward without understanding our differences and respecting each other,” the 40-year-old director said in an interview after “Odayaka” was shown at the annual Tribeca Film Festival, marking its North American premiere.
“Some people think it is okay and there are other people who are worried about radiation levels. I am completely fine if those people of differing opinions can coexist, sort of accept each other, and come together as a society,” he said.
The 9.0-magnitude quake in 2011 spawned tidal waves that swept away entire communities in northeastern Japan. It also turned the lives of those living near the Fukushima No. 1 nuclear plant upside down, and raised anxiety levels throughout the nation.
Although odayaka means tranquility or calm in Japanese, Uchida noted that “things were anything but” in the days and weeks after March 11 and that life was “abnormal.”
That uncertainty is captured in the 100-minute film, which depicts the parallel lives of two women living next to each other in a Tokyo suburb. Their everyday worlds are thrown into a tailspin as the consequences of the calamity unravels on many levels.
For the character named Saeko, whose roots are in the Tohoku region, the quake has a ripple effect: It prompts her husband to abandon her for another woman, leaving her to raise their child alone. The other woman, photographer Yukako, is beset by extreme anxiety, and she and her husband, Tatsuya, begin to fear for their lives.
Both women, unbeknownst to each other, doubt official assessments of the meltdowns’ impact on Tokyo and take eyebrow-raising precautions, including the wearing of pollen masks. Their reactions contrast starkly with those of people around them who believe the fallout levels are safe.
Saeko comes up against a gang of mothers who bully her. They object to her daughter wearing a face mask at school and staying indoors while others play outside. They call her “neurotic” when she buys a Geiger counter to check the schoolyard for radiation.
The harassment the single mom faces seems to amplify her alienation. She then starts to receive threatening letters and crank calls.
Seeking to capture the growing anxiety he witnessed in the Tokyo area, Uchida began writing the script in June 2011. After working on it for about six months, he began shooting the film over nine days in January 2012.
The director was troubled by stories of children who made harrowing escapes from Tohoku only to face harassment when they attended school in his area. “I felt angry about that,” the Saitama Prefecture native recalled.
He translated that sentiment into a powerful scene in which a masked Saeko happens to come upon a man frantically removing hateful notes taped to his car. The distraught survivor screams at her: “Now you’re discriminating against us, saying radiation is contagious.”
Recalling his March 11 experience, Uchida said he was in the middle of an editing job when the tremors began, causing his Tokyo office building to sway wildly. He recalled his frustration at not being able to get incontact his wife and having to walk more than an hour to get home.
Then the uncertainty set in after the first hydrogen explosion at the Fukushima plant, sparking real fears for the director and his wife. Much of this is incorporated into scenes throughout the film and is the basis for the journey that two of the characters, Yukako and her husband, go through.
“There was not a lot of focus on the lives that were affected throughout Japan,” Uchida explained of his desire to share those voices with both domestic and foreign audiences.
When the movie opened in Japan last year, Uchida was pleased with reactions, which varied considerably.
“Those who have seen the movie have different opinions coming out of it and it definitely started a dialogue among viewers, in bars, in cafes, what it means to be in Japan postearthquake,” he explained. “It has created a dialogue about how the earthquake has and continues to affect the Japanese people.”
It also “created a space” for people to accept each other’s viewpoints, especially for those who could relate to Saeko or Yukako, but were afraid to voice their fears at the height of the crisis.
Kiki Sugino, who played Saeko and coproduced the film, stressed the importance of accepting diverse viewpoints through “talking, rather than fighting.”
“This movie is about choices for individuals,” she said. “I want to create a more open society in Japan through this film.”
Although the coverage of the Fukushima disaster has faded, the filmmaker emphasized that it is far from over for many Japanese.
“There is still a lot of pressure from people pretending that everything is fine versus other people who are still worried about what is to come, what is going to happen. There are still a lot of differences of opinion, like you saw in the film. That has not gone away.”
For moviegoers like Will Schroeder, the opportunity to get the Japanese perspective was invaluable.
“I had read no voices from within this incident so I really wanted to get a sense of what it was like to actually experience this awful national trauma,” the 21-year-old film student said, adding that the “redemptive power” of people supporting one another even in the worst moments was inspiring.