As with many feature films based on real-life incidents, “Fukushima 50,” which opened nationwide March 6 and depicts the actions of the men who struggled to contain the disaster at the Fukushima No. 1 nuclear power plant following the Great East Japan Earthquake of March 2011, is a blend of factual exposition and dramatic enhancement. Stories require conflict to keep them interesting, usually with a hero fighting an adversary. In “Fukushima 50,” the hero is plant manager Masao Yoshida (Ken Watanabe), who makes life-and-death decisions in resistance against higher-ups rendered as incompetents.
One of these “villains,” as pointed out by writer and editor Yusuke Nakagawa in the March 6 online edition of Gendai Business, is Naoto Kan, who was the prime minister at the time of the disaster. In the movie, Kan’s name is never uttered and, as Nakagawa points out, the actor who plays him, Shiro Sano, doesn’t look like him, but that’s not what concerns Nakagawa. Sano portrays Kan as a puddle of hysteria whose decisions threaten lives because they make Yoshida’s job more difficult. Kan has an infamous temper and Nakagawa acknowledges that he made mistakes during the course of the emergency, but the movie fails to detail the reasons for his actions. Turning him into a babbling fool makes the filmmakers’ job easier, which is to show Yoshida as a towering figure of courage and resourcefulness in the face of a crisis that could have ended in the destruction of eastern Japan.
Nakagawa admits to having a horse in this race, as he helped Kan write his own account of what went down at the Prime Minister’s Office during those fateful days, and he concurs with the conclusion that Yoshida and the men who worked at the plant are heroes and that Yoshida’s employer, Tokyo Electric Power Company Holdings Inc. (Tepco), was the main problem. However, he can’t help but think that the film’s pillorying of Kan was due to more than dramatic license. There was something political about it. Kan has since become a pariah to many people. As much as any other matter, it was Kan’s handling of the Fukushima disaster that led to the destruction of his party. The Democratic Party of Japan no longer exists.
Nevertheless, Kan has no problem with the portrayal, according to the film’s director, Setsuro Wakamatsu, who said so during a news conference at the Foreign Correspondents’ Club of Japan following a press screening of “Fukushima 50” on March 4. Kan’s magnanimity is noble, perhaps, but it should be noted that he has his own film to promote, or, at least, a film that shows him in a more sympathetic light. “The Seal of the Sun,” originally released in 2016, had a much smaller budget than “Fukushima 50” and no marquee stars. It looks at the disaster from the vantage point of the Prime Minister’s Office, focusing on Tepco’s lack of cooperation with the government, and while it doesn’t contradict the Yoshida hero narrative, it does complicate it with points that “Fukushima 50” downplays or doesn’t even bring up.
Kan has made himself available to discuss those points at public screenings of “The Seal of the Sun.” Such local events aren’t going to counteract the message of “Fukushima 50,” and they aren’t meant to, but the narrative distinctions do show how uneven the coverage of the Fukushima disaster has been. The most glaring example of this unevenness is a 2014 story by the Asahi Shimbun’s special investigative team based on an interview that Yoshida gave to the government. The report undermined the Fukushima hero narrative by saying that 90 percent of the plant workers fled the facility in fear for their lives. The Asahi Shimbun management, already smarting from other recent scandals, eventually retracted the piece after receiving complaints saying the article implied the workers were cowards, effectively ending the special investigative team in the process. Ryusho Kadota, the journalist who wrote the book that was the basis for the “Fukushima 50” script, wrote another book refuting the Asahi Shimbun’s coverage, though, as former New York Times Tokyo bureau chief Martin Fackler points out in an article he wrote for the Asia-Pacific Journal, there was nothing essentially untrue in the Asahi Shimbun story. In fact, Tepco admitted that about 650 workers had fled, but said many were not regular company employees. The legendary “Fukushima 50” (in reality, they numbered 69), a term coined by foreign media, remained at the plant.
The argument about what really happened isn’t over facts. It’s over how those facts are interpreted. In “Fukushima 50,” Kan’s desperation is presented as a danger to the country. In “The Seal of the Sun,” it shows how hard he is trying to grasp the actual situation on the ground. Before the Yoshida report in 2014, the Asahi Shimbun’s editorial slant was generally critical of nuclear power. Afterward, it became neutral.
Nakagawa thinks these differences are politically influenced. Almost all of Japan’s nuclear power capacity has been off-line since the Fukushima incident, a situation the present government wants to reverse but finds difficult to do because of public resistance. In that sense, the story of the men who saved Japan from nuclear catastrophe can be exploited by both sides. Anti-nuclear forces say it proves how dangerous nuclear power is, while pro-nuclear forces say that it shows how Japanese ingenuity and dedication prevails.
However, even that distinction is subject to dispute. Retired Fukui District Court Chief Justice Hideaki Higuchi was one of the few judges to find in favor of plaintiffs suing to stop resumption of nuclear power plants. Higuchi reached these decisions after carefully studying the Fukushima No. 1 disaster and concluding that it was averted as much by serendipity as by Yoshida’s and the Fukushima 50’s bravery. These “miracles,” which had to do with the availability of cooling water and quake-related damage to the reactor housing, have been openly discussed, but they aren’t emphasized as much because it takes something away from the hero tale. As a judge, Higuchi had to pay closer attention to all the facts than a feature film script writer does.