Japanese disaster films fill gap left by mainstream journalismTOKYO - The unnerving clicks of dosimeters are constant as people wearing white protective gear quickly visit the radiated no-go zones of decayed farms and empty storefronts. Evacuees huddle on blankets on gymnasium floors, waiting futilely for word of compensation and relocation.
Such scenes fill the flurry of independent films inspired by Japan’s March 2011 catastrophe that tell stories of regular people who became overnight victims - stories the creators feel are being ignored by mainstream media and often silenced by the authorities.
Nearly two years after the quake and tsunami disaster, the films are an attempt by the creative minds of Japan’s movie industry not only to confront the horrors of the worst nuclear disaster since Chernobyl, but also to empower and serve as a legacy for the victims by telling their stories for international audiences.
The impact these films have on the global and Japanese audiences could perhaps even help change Japan, the directors say.
What’s striking is that many of the works convey a prevailing message: The political, scientific and regulatory establishment isn’t telling the whole truth about the nuclear disaster. And much of the public had been in the past ignorant and uncaring about Fukushima.
And so the films were needed, the auteurs say. The people leading Japan were too evasive about the true consequences of the multiple meltdowns at the Fukushima Dai-ichi nuclear plant - minimizing people’s suffering, playing down health risks and shrugging off accountability for past go-go pro-nuclear government policies.
“Japan’s response is ambiguous and irresponsible. But, meanwhile, time is passing,” said Atsushi Funahashi, director of “Nuclear Nation,” which documents the story of the residents of Futaba, Fukushima, the town where the crippled nuclear plant is located.
The outburst of post-disaster filmmaking includes Americans living in or visiting Japan, such as “Surviving Japan,” by Christopher Noland, “Pray for Japan,” by Stuart Levy, “In the Grey Zone” and “A2” by Ian Thomas Ash.
“The Tsunami and the Cherry Blossom,” by Lucy Walker, a Briton, was nominated for the 2012 Academy Award for short documentaries. Both Levy and Noland volunteered in the disaster areas. Ash’s documentaries focus on the plight of the children who continue to live near the nuclear plant and the frightened mothers who suspect the medical authorities are lying about the safety of radiation.
“I believe it is time for Japanese citizens to not just rebuild but reinvent their country with new leadership,” said Noland, who like many others worries about the children. “I want the people of Japan to know I stand with them.”
Funahashi’s “Nuclear Nation,” shown at film festivals including Berlin, Seoul and Edinburgh, Scotland, intentionally played out its scenes in real time to communicate the helplessness of the days slipping away for displaced people. Camera close-ups show the cold lunches in boxes being handed out, day by day.
Yojyu Matsubayashi took a more standard documentary approach for his “Fukushima: Memories of the Lost Landscape,” interviewing people who were displaced in the Fukushima town of Minami Soma.
He followed them into temporary shelters in cluttered gymnasiums and accompanied their harried visits to abandoned homes with the gentle patience of a video journalist. Japanese mainstream media had abandoned the no-go zone, and he felt it was up to freelance reporters like him to tell the true story, especially for the helpless elderly.
“I’ve been making documentaries for some time, but when the nuclear accident happened, I felt I had to be there,” he said. “Once I got there, I knew I had to be there for a long time and express the eternal from that one spot.”
Others are finding their work is drawing more attention after Fukushima.
Akiyoshi Imazeki began shooting “Kalina’s Apple, Forest of Chernobyl” in 2003, a film about a girl who falls sick after eating the radiated apples grown on her grandmother’s farm. It was a film he believed in, but he had never hoped for massive appeal.
His post-Fukushima 2011 re-edit - with its juxtaposition of pastoral lakes and forests, so much like Fukushima landscapes, with the forlorn faces of children hospitalized for cancer - is striking home with many Japanese.
The film was shot quietly like many Japanese classics, and the cast is entirely Belarusian and Russian. But the dozens of screenings in Fukushima are drawing positive reviews.
“They all cry,” said Imazeki.
Imazeki is convinced the parallels between Fukushima and Chernobyl are striking, and stressed “Kalina’s Apple, Forest of Chernobyl” dramatizes the tragedy of radiation.