Chris Knipp Writing: Movies, Politics, Art

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PostPosted: Sun Jul 26, 2020 3:08 pm 
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Good but not great film about the Japanese nuclear disaster

This is the first big budget, big name film about Japan's 2011 earthquake and Fukushima Daiichi nuclear disaster. It stars Ken Watanabe and Koichi Sato and has plenty of excitement. But as more than one commentator has noted, it "lacks nuance" and is timid ("earnest, if somewhat toothless," said James Marsh in SCMP being unwilling to point accusing fingers for something that like the other big ones, Three Mile Island and Chernobyl (the latter having its own superb for-television mini-series), were rife with human error. As Anthony Kao has written in Cinema Escapist, its timidity about responsibility will probably mean this film won't ever get the international audience the dramatically more sophisticated Chernobyl mini-series received. But that doesn't keep it from being "immensely valuable" and "intriguing' from the historical point of view. But artistically this reads as lightweight compared to the superb miniseries by Craig Mazin, Chernobyl.

The focus is on the nuclear plant workers who remained - initially fifty, hence the title - to minimize the damage. The main source is a 2012 book by Ryusho Kadota commpiliing ninety interviews with all levels from basic plant workers to PM Naoto Kan, and depicts a race against time to minimize escape of radiation while the team was able.

A reflection of the reticence is that all the workers are fictional, including shift supervisor Toshio Izaki (Koichi Sato). One exception is Masao Yoshida (Ken Watanabe), the impressively down-to-earth and energetic site superintendent and emergency response team leader. Mark Shilling, the veteran Japan Times[/I> reviewer, says Yoshida was "too famous to fictionalize" because he was the public face of the response team even internationally. The original of Izaki also passed away seven years ago from a cancer judged to be of other origins, and a memorial to him is built into this film.

This film doesn't point fingers, and is framed in shades of gray. But it has its dramatic high point; Yoshida's decision to go against the instructions of Tokyo Electric Power Company (TEPCO) officials to stop cooling the damaged reactors with sea water because they feared the equipment would be ruined. If he hadn't continued to cool the reactors the center of the country would have become uninhabitable. TEPCO is a pushover compared to the fearsome opponent represented by the Soviet Union''s Central Committee in [I]Chernobyl. But at least Wakamatsu's film makes no bones about the profit-first focus of TEPCO in the face of a massive human disaster. The film also isn't afraid to show how confused and panicked the rank and file workers were when confronted by the chaotic events surrounding them.

The film also does a good job of depicting the initial earthquake and then the resulting tsunami that washed over the power plant's coastal defense walls flooding the main structures and knocking out the backup generators required to cool the reactor cores. It also fills in some US responses both bad and good - the callous reaction from the Obama administration; the admirable humanitarian relief effort mounted by an American air force general.

What I remember of the Chernobyl mini-series are the relationships between people, though: the conflicts and altering power structure as events were referred to higher up and the prolonged disaster action action was carried out. Not the rush of action so much as the long slow creepy sense of danger from radiation. Not sure there is quite an equivalent here for all that. Perspective is provided here of responses at the Prime Minister's office and a US military base. (Notably, the PM's helicoptering over the Fukushima station caused a delay in the recovery operation.) But the quality of the writing is less impressive than the sense of reproducing the event and its army of brave men of action, "valiant warriors," as Anthony Kao calls them.

The Japanese and the Soviets may have something in common besides having hosted the two worst nuclear disasters - level seven on the International Nuclear Event Scale: having a culture of unwillingness to find anyone responsible.

Fukushima 50 / フクシマ , 122 mins., opened Mar. 6 in Japan, in June in Vietnam and Hong Kong. In July it had internet release in Poland, DVD and Blu-ray in the Netherlands. In the US it has internet release as part of the July 17-30, 2020 Japan Cuts, for which it screened for this review.

The festival is entirely online this year. Anyone in the US can watch it, paying a small fee for each individual film, from July 17-30, 2020. Go HERE to access the films

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