March 11 marks the ninth anniversary of the Great East Japan Earthquake, which resulted in a tsunami that devastated Japan’s northeastern Tohoku region. More than 22,000 people died or are presumed to have died in the disaster, which also destroyed tens of thousands of buildings, and catalyzed a triple nuclear meltdown, three hydrogen explosions and the release of radioactive contamination at the Fukushima No. 1 nuclear power plant.

Huge numbers of people were forced to flee their homes with many facing the prospect they’d never be able to return. The dire situation could have been much worse, however, had it not been for the heroic actions of a group of power plant employees who continued to work on attempting to stabilize the reactors after everyone else had been evacuated. Overseas media dubbed them the “Fukushima 50,” even though the number of workers eventually ran into the hundreds.

The story of these selfless and, until now, mostly anonymous individuals is finally being given the platform it deserves in the film “Fukushima 50,” directed by Setsuro Wakamatsu (“Whiteout,” “The Unbroken”). Based on Ryusho Kadota’s nonfiction book “On the Brink: The Inside Story of Fukushima Daiichi” and the adapted screenplay of Yoichi Maekawa (“Gunji Kanbei,” “The Auditor”), it’s an incredibly emotional film with a chillingly realistic feel that may seem obvious given the subject matter but still has impact.

The lead roles of shift supervisor Toshio Izaki and site superintendent Masao Yoshida are played by two of Japan’s most distinguished actors: Koichi Sato (“The Uchoten Hotel,” “Unforgiven”) and Ken Watanabe (“The Last Samurai,” “Inception”). The former, though not as internationally well-known as his co-star, is a huge name here, having graced the silver screen for almost four decades, winning five domestic Academy Awards.

“I was shooting for a TV miniseries (“Ishitsubute”) with Wakamatsu around three or four years ago when I first heard about the film,” says Sato. “It was in the planning stages and he asked me if I’d be interested in participating. My initial thought was that it seemed too soon to be making a movie like that when people are still suffering from the disaster. I didn’t want to be part of a propaganda piece. I then heard the focus would be on the individuals at the site and that’s when I decided to do it.”

Sato, 59, originally thought he’d be playing Yoshida, a heroic figure who defied orders from senior Tokyo Electric Power Company officials to stop pumping seawater into one of the damaged reactors in an effort to keep it cool. Instead, he was given the role of Izaki, who has a fictional name but is based on a real person. A softly spoken man from Fukushima, he leads his team courageously in a calm and resolute manner while his family anxiously waits for news at a school gymnasium.

“Before we started shooting, I visited the nuclear power plant because I wanted to have a more rounded view of the situation,” says Sato. “Having lived in (Tokyo) my whole life, that kind of place has always seemed so far away to me. Therefore, it was good to be able to experience just a little bit of the lifestyle of the locals, many of whom had been living near the plant since they were children. To then actually go inside the building and measure radiation levels was some experience, yet for my character that would have been an everyday occurrence.”

After visiting the region, Sato joined the cast and crew for filming, which began in November 2018.

“Everything was shot in chronological order, so we had a good understanding of what was happening,” says Sato. “You want to paint a picture that’s as close to what happened as possible. That meant being filmed in damp rooms without proper lighting while wearing our protective suits. We wanted to simulate what those workers had to go through, not just during takes, but the whole time we were on set.”

Working in 12-hour rotating shifts, employees at the plant were forced to persevere under horrendous conditions. The high levels of contamination meant it was hard to get food supplies to them. They would typically be given crackers and vegetable juice in the morning, followed by instant rice in the evening. Provided with a mattress and lead mat to protect them from radiation, some of them slept in stairwells and hallways.

Back stories: Actor Koichi Sato visited the stricken Fukushima No. 1 power plant before shooting for 'Fukushima 50' began. | © 2020 'FUKUSHIMA 50' FILM PARTNERS
Back stories: Actor Koichi Sato visited the stricken Fukushima No. 1 power plant before shooting for ‘Fukushima 50’ began. | © 2020 ‘FUKUSHIMA 50’ FILM PARTNERS

“They believed they had to stay because, in their eyes, they were the only ones who could help,” says Sato. “When I first started thinking about my character, I wondered if he did it for his country or hometown, as that was the place where his family had been brought up. Then, after a couple of days of shooting, I realized it wasn’t about that. The attitude of those workers was, ‘If we don’t do something, nobody else will, so we have to remain.’ I feel it was a decision that came about naturally for them.”

When Izaki asks his men if they’d be prepared to go on working at the plant, all of them raise their hands. They then try to cool the stricken reactors with seawater while preventing fire. The orders came from Yoshida, who attempted to take some kind of control of the situation from the emergency response office set up on the second floor of the plant’s quake-resistant building. By disregarding corporate instructions, he arguably prevented a much bigger disaster from taking place.

Watanabe puts in a strong performance as the much-heralded plant manager. The 60-year-old actor is best known for overseas blockbusters such as “Batman Begins” and “Godzilla.” However, he still regularly features in Japanese productions. He previously worked with Wakamatsu on “The Unbroken” (“Shizumanu Taiyo”), an aviation disaster movie about the 1985 Japan Airlines plane crash that killed 520 people. The last time he appeared alongside Sato was seven years ago in Lee Sang-il’s remake of Clint Eastwood’s “Unforgiven.”

“Although we come from different backgrounds, we’re part of the same generation, and that’s a big thing for me,” says Sato of Watanabe. “We’ve lived in the same era and have been influenced by the socio-historical environment of our youth, which gives us a shared experience. Also, we’ve had quite similar careers, and from that I feel a connection. Even though we weren’t in many scenes together in this movie, we trusted each other to take responsibility for our individual roles.”

The pair began their acting careers around the same time, though it was Sato who made the bigger impression early on, winning Best Newcomer at the Japan Academy Awards for his role as Shisuke Ibuki in the drama film “The Gate of Youth.” He would go on to become one of the country’s most sought-after actors, working with renowned directors such as Junji Sakamoto, Takashi Miike and Koki Mitani. Seen as a cool and composed figure, it’s hard to imagine him getting too ruffled by anything, yet he admits he did feel nervous before the first screening of “Fukushima 50,” which took place at a theater in Fukushima Prefecture.

“I was scared about what the reaction would be from local people,” says Sato. “It’s still a delicate topic. I didn’t want this to feel like we were forcing them to be prepared for something they didn’t want to see. I thought that people might walk out after five minutes. Fortunately, nobody did. One comment, in particular, stood out. An audience member said, ‘It was tough to watch, but I’m glad I did. Thanks for making this film and creating something we can pass on to the next generation so this will never be forgotten.’

“After hearing that, I realized it wasn’t too soon to make this movie,” says Sato. “In fact, we might have been too late. Next year is the 10th anniversary and I think for some it’s slowly becoming just an accident that occurred in the past. We can’t let that happen. I hope this film opens people’s eyes to the fact that this kind of secondary disaster could take place again tomorrow. We need to be ready.”

Interview translated by Serina Doi. “Fukushima 50” is released in cinemas nationwide on March 6. For more information, visit www.fukushima50.jp.

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