A onetime indie wunderkind, Kaizo Hayashi has since become a respected teacher of film at Kyoto University of the Arts and Tohoku University of Art and Design.

With the backing of the latter institution, Hayashi has directed “Bolt,” a three-part film based on the meltdown disaster at the Fukushima No. 1 nuclear power plant of 2011. Made over a period of three years, the film is an object lesson on how to derive maximum on-screen impact from a minimal budget.

Hayashi’s work has long had a nostalgic streak and lush beauty, starting with his 1986 feature debut “To Sleep so as to Dream” — and both elements are present in “Bolt.” Also, unlike the many 3/11 films that opt for a docudrama approach, “Bolt” is something of a genre mishmash that aims to entertain. This is also typical of Hayashi, who is best known for his playfully noirish detective mysteries, featuring Masatoshi Nagase as private investigator Maiku Hama.

Bolt (Boruto)
Run Time 80 min.
Language Japanese
Opens Dec. 11

But “Bolt” is no cinematic game made with a knowing wink to Hayashi fans. It is instead an attempt to reframe the Fukushima disaster in a wider context, using genre as a tool. The three segments do not accomplish this with equal effectiveness, but none are outright failures.

The strongest of the segments, especially from a bangs-for-bucks (or rather yen) perspective, is the first, titled “Bolt.” The story: To stop the leak of cooling water at the damaged Fukushima No. 1 plant, workers go out in pairs to tighten a bolt on a pressure tank.

Shot at the Takamatsu Art Museum, this segment makes no attempt at realism. The six workers, including their fiercely determined leader (Nagase), wear eerily lit helmets that make them look like astronauts from “2001: A Space Odyssey,” while their only tool is a giant wrench that resembles a prop from Charlie Chaplin’s “Modern Times.” Nonetheless, their mission has a sweaty urgency, filmed with action-movie tension, on a set with a surreal sci-fi look and a dark, claustrophobic atmosphere. The outcome is a haunting reminder that the nuclear Pandora’s box, once opened, unleashes forces that mere human heroism cannot control.

The second episode, “Life,” is the most conventionally dramatic. Nagase again stars, this time as a worker in the evacuation zone, assigned to clean a house where an elderly man has died after disobeying orders to not return. The job is dirty and grim, edging on the horrific. Why do he and his brusque, no-nonsense co-worker (Shima Onishi) do it? The short answer: Someone has to. The overly obvious moral is that the survivors must go on living.

The third and last episode, “Good Year,” is also the most Hayashi-esque in its mixture of noir and kaidan (Japanese ghost story). A lonely-looking man (Nagase) working on Christmas Eve in an auto repair shop discovers a heavily made-up woman (Sarara Tsukifune) passed out in a snazzy red car. When she comes to, inside the shop, he tells her she has a flat tire. She in turn informs him that she has left her job, husband and child in Tokyo. Looking at her, he recalls a figure from his past.

The ending is mythical and mysterious — and ties into the film’s beginning, with a reminder that life is fragile, fate is untamable, but we mortals keep trying to impose order on chaos. Or, as Hayashi so distinctively puts it, a slippery wrench to a stiff bolt.

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