Not long ago Sion Sono was known abroad mainly as a maker of cult shockers, starting with his 2001 international hit “Jisatsu Sakuru (Suicide Club).”
His films still supply rude jolts to the system, though in his latest work he has also shown a more serious side. “Himizu,” originally intended as another in a long line of local films about disaffected youth, was reworked by Sono in 2011 in the wake of the Great East Japan Earthquake into a drama about the impact of the triple disaster on the disturbed teenage hero and those around him. Though its extreme violence was familiar, “Himizu” delivered a surprisingly cathartic charge.
Sono is not yet finished with the subject, however. His newest film, “Kibo no Kuni (The Land of Hope),” focuses on the victims of a future Fukushima-like reactor meltdown caused by a massive earthquake in rural Japan.
Scripted by Sono from his own story, “The Land of Hope” can be read as an ironic indictment of an industry and a people that apparently learned nothing following the worst nuclear calamity since Chernobyl. Coming so soon after the disaster-related deaths of nearly 19,000 people, it might, in the hands of another filmmaker, seem insensitive, even cynical.
Sono’s allegorical approach, though, is not only congenial to him as a filmmaker (his best films to date, 2008’s “Ai no Mukidashi [Love Exposure]” and 2010’s “Tsumetai Nettaigyo [Cold Fish],” are similarly fabulistic in tone), but right for his subject matter. A naturalistic “problem” film, based on survivor accounts, would be competing against the many Fukushima-themed documentaries, probably to its disadvantage. Also, Sono’s “what if?” scenario allows him to go beyond conventional realism to incisively satirize a bureaucratic bloody-mindedness that has so often had negative consequences.
Finally, it gives “The Land of Hope” a universality it might have not otherwise had. In an age rife with disaster, natural, man-made or a combination of the two, his central family’s stark dilemma could be anyone’s.
Yasuhiko Ono (Isao Natsuyagi), an elderly cattle raiser, and his dementia-afflicted wife Chieko (Naoko Otani), live together in a rural village with their feckless only son, Yoichi (Jun Murakami), and his newly pregnant wife Izumi (Megumi Kagurazaka). Their neighbors across the street, the Suzukis, have a similar family structure, though the husband and wife (Denden and Mariko Tsutsui) are both healthy, while their eldest son, Mitsuru (Yutaka Shimizu), who zips around town on his motorbike with his hot young girlfriend (Hikari Kajiwara), is still in the rebellious stage.
Then the quake strikes and the nearby nuclear plant begins spewing dangerous radiation that Yasuhiko picks up on his Geiger counter (but which the radio news broadcasts neglect to mention). Soon, workers in creepy white protective suits are marking off the limits of a 20-km evacuation zone right down their street, with the Onos allowed to stay and the Suzukis made to go. But Yasuhiko, distrusting official assurances, urges Yoichi and Izumi to escape while they still can. Worried about her unborn child, Izumi needs little persuading.
The ensuing drama reflects some of the more shocking and disturbing 3/11 headlines, though Sono’s treatment is anything but sensationalistic. Instead he cuts through the fog of the media’s disaster coverage, with its stereotyping of the victims as “stoic” and “heroic,” to the not-so-noble emotions many were actually feeling — from Mitsuru’s rage at his family’s forced exile to Izumi’s obsessive fear of an invisible enemy. He also makes us understand Yasuhiko’s stubborn determination to remain on his land, though the character knows better than anyone the risks he is running.
The action is largely confined to Yasuhiko’s farm and its environs, while budgetary limitations mean no exploding reactors, panicking crowds or other showy effects. This, as well as Sono’s preference for stylization over naturalism, gives the film a rather stagy feel.
At the same time, he produces some striking imagery, such as an overhead view of the “no-go zone” fence slicing like a razor across the countryside, while the performances of his cast, particularly veteran Natsuyagi as the unbending Yasuhiko, vividly (if theatrically) express the truth behind the victims’ public face of silent endurance.
The film long refuses to clarify what, if anything, the characters have to look forward to. But the hope promised in the title, when it arrives, is not a last-minute sop to audience sentiment. Instead it flows from a human instinct that even melting reactors can never kill, unless they kill us first.