By now, nine years after the meltdown at the Fukushima No. 1 nuclear power plant on March 11, there have been many books and documentaries about the disaster. Setsuro Wakamatsu’s “Fukushima 50,” however, is the first film dramatization to focus on front-line workers whose labors prevented a far greater catastrophe.

Based on a non-fiction book by Ryusho Kadota that compiled more than 90 interviews with everyone from plant rank-and-filers to former Prime Minister Naoto Kan, the story has life-or-death drama, with workers struggling to open vents as their allotted minutes in radiation hot zones tick by.

So why did it take so long to bring Kadota’s 2012 book to the big screen? One reason may be scale: The production team re-created the sprawling Fukushima No. 1 plant site and, with a large cast and CG effects, the chaos swirling around it.

Fukushima 50 (Fukushima Fifuti)
Run Time 122 mins.
Opens March 6

A point of comparison is “Shin Godzilla,” the 2016 hit reboot of the Godzilla franchise. Partly inspired by the March 11, 2011, disaster, “Shin Godzilla” was a softly nationalistic shout out to an intrepid band of techies, bureaucrats and military types who overcome incompetence by higher-ups to save Japan from a nuclear-fire-breathing monster.

“Fukushima 50” has a similar us-against-them narrative, with the “us” being decent folks who bravely battle forces more powerful than any fictional monster. But for all its overacting and sentimentalism, “Fukushima 50” is more a shades-of-gray factual re-creation than a black-and-white celebration of Yamato-damashii (“Japanese spirit”).

Perhaps out of privacy concerns, the workers at the Fukushima No. 1 central control room are nearly all fictional characters, including beleaguered shift supervisor Toshio Izaki (Koichi Sato).

Only Masao Yoshida (Ken Watanabe), the quick-thinking, blunt-speaking site superintendent and leader of the emergency response team, is given the name of a real person. Yoshida, who became the face of the Fukushima No. 1 workers for the local and overseas media, was too famous to fictionalize. He passed away in 2013 of a cancer judged not to have been caused by the disaster — and the film is a tribute to his memory, with a heartfelt speech by Izaki at his on-screen memorial service.

Yoshida’s key decision, which the film rightly frames as a dramatic high point, is to defy company orders to stop cooling the damaged reactors with seawater. His bosses at the Tokyo Electric Power Company (Tepco) were worried that seawater would ruin the reactors beyond repair; Yoshida knew he had no alternative. Uncooled, the reactors could have released enough radiation to turn the middle of the country, Tokyo included, into a no-go zone.

Does the film fudge or elide facts? I will leave detailed answers to experts, but other than not naming certain names, “Fukushima 50” strives, boldly for a mainstream film, to tell certain home truths, from the profits-first mindset of the plant’s operators to the panic and confusion that, unseen by the general public, nearly overwhelmed workers when plant roofs blew sky high. That they went on to avert a Chernobyl-like apocalypse is why I can still write this review in Tokyo instead of a thankfully never-used evacuation zone. Or why I can write it at all.

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