The earthquake, tsunami and Fukushima No. 1 nuclear plant disaster of March 11, 2011, have generated dozens of films, fiction and nonfiction, from nearly every conceivable angle. The only other historical event in the modern era covered so thoroughly by Japanese filmmakers is World War II.
One difference is that, unlike the many war films that sentimentalize and idealize their heroes (those glorifying the tokkо̄tai suicide pilots being prominent examples), films about March 11 have, by and large, tried to be honest, even when it means showing victims in a less-than-positive light.
Some of the filmmakers have spent years getting to know their subjects, enabling them to bring a welcome depth and insight to their stories. While this mostly applies to makers of documentaries, many directors of fiction films have also been forthright and unsparing, doing their own legwork rather than relying on a bestselling novel or other presold property for inspiration — the standard operating procedure of the Japanese film industry.
This makes the task of assembling a “best 3/11 movies” list difficult since worthy films will inevitably be left off. So the following recommendations aim to be not a final word on what is worth watching, but a sampling that will hopefully lead to further investigation.
“Themis” (2011) / “The Land of Hope” (2012)
Best known in the West as a maker of extreme films that spring directly from his unhinged imagination, Sion Sono is actually a more varied filmmaker with serious concerns, as his two March 11-themed films show. The first, “Themis” (originally titled “Himizu”), was intended as a drama about disturbed teens from dysfunctional families who fall violently in love, but Sono rewrote it to reflect the disaster. The film’s two young leads — Shota Sometani and Fumi Nikaido — deservingly won a joint best acting prize at the 2011 Venice International Film Festival.
Sono soon followed up with “The Land of Hope,” a dystopian sci-fi about victims of a future Fukushima-like reactor meltdown in a society that has learned nothing from the previous one. Two neighboring families are arbitrarily separated by an evacuation zone line and experience radically different fates. Though Sono was criticized for exploiting Fukushima’s tragedy too soon after the fact, the film is a graphic, if floridly theatrical, parable about how ordinary lives can be unmoored and destroyed by official rigidity and ineptitude.
This drama by Ryoichi Kimizuka about an elderly volunteer (Toshiyuki Nishida) who brings order and dignity to the task of organizing a temporary morgue for the tsunami dead is based on a true story. Despite some tear-jerking moments, the film is a stark and revealing look at the human cost of the disaster at its most elemental and, to surviving family members, emotionally devastating.
“Nuclear Nation” (2012) / “Nuclear Nation II” (2014)
In this pair of hard-hitting documentaries, centering on the town of Futaba near the crippled Fukushima No. 1 plant, Atsushi Funahashi levels a devastating indictment on the official response to the disaster, from the national to the local. Once beneficiaries of a nuclear bonanza, Futaba residents become angered by empty government assurances of a return to normality, while nuclear waste piles up around them. Funahashi also directed “Cold Bloom,” a 2012 drama set in the disaster-hit city of Hitachi. The story is inspired by Mikio Naruse’s 1967 classic, “Scattered Clouds,” about a woman who comes to love the man responsible for her husband’s death.
“The People Living in Hadenya” (2014) / “Tremorings of Hope” (2017)
A native of tsunami-hit Miyagi Prefecture, Kazuki Agatsuma began filming at the Miyagi fishing port of Hadenya in 2005, while still a university student. After March 11, he returned to make a pair of documentaries, focusing on O-susu-sama, a local festival held every March, but canceled after the disaster. Over the years, Agatsuma gained rare access to a community not always accepting of outsiders, though his closeness to local personalities and problems occasionally gets him into trouble, all dutifully recorded by his camera. Unlike parachuting journalists who found Hadenya locals to be exemplars of resilience and community spirit in the wake of the tsunami, Agatsuma uncovers a more complex and compelling reality.
“Alone in Fukushima” (2015) / “Alone Again in Fukushima” (2021)
Mayu Nakamura spent eight years filming Naoto Matsumura, a resident of Tomioka, a town near the crippled Fukushima No. 1 plant. Employed in the construction business prior to the disaster, Matsumura dedicated himself afterwards to feeding cows, horses and other animals abandoned by their owners due to evacuation orders. As perceptively shown in Nakamura’s films “Alone in Fukushima” and the follow-up “Alone Again in Fukushima,” Matsumura is not a saint, but instead an appealingly stubborn individual who talks gloom and doom, but continues to doggedly take care of the animals, even as they slowly disappear and die off. In the second film, Nakamura widens her focus from Matsumura to other, equally frank locals, as well as to signs of recovery such as a functioning train station. Matsumura also acerbically points out, however, that the government’s rosy spin on rebuilding the town is belied by the hard truth that many of Tomioka’s people, like their animals, will never return.
“Side Job.” (2017)
One of the first filmmakers to reference the March 11 disaster, in his 2011 drama “River,” Fukushima Prefecture native Ryuichi Hiroki returned to the subject in “Side Job.,” a 2017 film based on his own novel, which was in turn based on his extensive research. Starring Kumi Takiuchi as a city clerk in Iwaki who has a secret life as a Tokyo sex worker, the film focuses on the enduring trauma of the disaster, with evacuees in temporary shelters sinking into various addictions or, as in the protagonist’s case, flirting with danger — and oblivion. The film, however, asks for understanding rather than pity, while holding out the possibility of hope.
“Fukushima 50” (2020)
Based on reportage by journalist Ryusho Kadota, this drama directed by Setsuro Wakamatsu has been praised and panned, with a Eiga Geijutsu magazine critics poll ranking it the fourth worst film of the year. But like it or loathe it, “Fukushima 50” is the only film to fully dramatize, with chilling realism, the chaos that enveloped the Fukushima No. 1 plant. It also highlights the real-life heroism of workers who risked their lives to vent the reactors and prevent a Chernobyl-like catastrophe.
Made in three parts over a period of three years, Kaizo Hayashi’s “Bolt” is a typical product of this one-time indie wunderkind, who is adept at mashing up genres to stylish and entertaining effect. In this film, he tries to reframe March 11 and its aftermath in a wider, more metaphorical context, without losing sight of its human cost. Especially in the first segment, in which fearful but brave plant workers venture out to loosen the title reactor bolt and prevent a total meltdown, reality gives way to a gripping dreamscape, while its story is a potent warning that nuclear forces, once unleashed, are beyond mere human control. To the students who helped Hayashi shoot the film, the low-budget “Bolt” is also an object lesson on how to get maximum cinematic bang for minimum bucks — or yen.
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