With Fukushima 50, Setsuro Wakamatsu presents the first semi-fiction film directly depicting the Tohoku artware and tsunami. Adapted from the non-fiction book by Ryusho Kadota, titled On the Brink: The Inside Story of Fukushima Daiichi (2019) Wakamatsu promises us to offer a look at what happened inside the nuclear plant when disaster hit them.
March Eleventh, 2:46 PM, an earthquake suddenly hits the Tohoku area of Japan. Workers at the various units of Fukushima Daiichi Nuclear Power Plant start evacuating. Toshio Izaki (Koichi Sato), the Operations Management Shift Supervisor, who works at the Units 1 and 2 Operations building 2F Control room, order his team to follow the emergency instructions and lower the reactor power output of unit 1 and unit 2.
After the initial earthquake, the plant manager Masao Yoshida (Ken Watanabe), who is on his way to the Emergency Response Room, orders those who successfully evacuated to look for any missing or injured workers. While everything appears to be under control – everyone even prepared for the tsunami, the tsunami that is coming is one far exceeding the protection measures installed around the nuclear plant.
Fukushima 50 tells the largely untold story of those 50 workers who made an attempt to evade the unavoidable, those who tried to prevent that what eventually happened, a nuclear melt-down. Of course, the spectator knows from the very beginning that their attempt, while instrumental in avoiding the worst, will not be entirely successful. But this knowledge, as strange as it may sound, makes the attempt of the Izaki, Yoshida, and the other workers truly heroic and pleasingly emotional for the spectator.
The attempt of the Fukushima 50 confronts the spectator, in a rather dramatic way, with how far people are willing to go to prevent disaster, how easy it is for subjects to accept the possibility of death in an attempt to ensure the safety for the others. The heroic aspect of their attempt does, in fact, not lie in the danger of their acts as such, but in the sacrificial undercurrent that characterizes their acts.
Wakamatsu’s narrative also explores Izaki’s past and his current familial context. And while such explorations could have been abused for infusing a jarring amount of melodrama or sentimentality into the narrative, Wakamatsu skillfully uses these more sentimental moments in order to give more depth to Izaki as character and to give the spectator an insight in the chaotic way the evacuation happened.
A central contrast that structures the unfolding of Fukushima 50 is the contrast between those on the field who fully understand the seriousness of the situation and those at headquarters who are only able to follow the letter of regulations and are unable, due to incompetence or due to hierarchical structures, to make decisions at the moment they need to be made (Narra-note 1).
The tragedy of Fukushima is not only that those people at the headquarters fail not understand the scope of the disastrous event and the near uselessness of the nuclear safety regulations, but also that they, by following the rules of the hierarchical bureaucratic system, problematize their ability to make decisions. In other words, their reliance on (useless) regulations and on hierarchical structures, in fact, makes it impossible for true leadership to emerge, for someone to emerge to make decisions against the hierarchy and the regulations.
By exploring this contrast, Wakamatsu beautifully reveals that the failure of the Japanese bureaucratic system to deal with this unexpected situation is structural. The rigid bureaucratic system, in other words, lacks the necessary flexibility to handle the situation in a constructive way. Masao Yoshida’s angry outbursts and his willingness to defy orders illustrate nothing other than the fact that the hierarchical rigidity of the system functions as an obstacle in crisis-situations (Narra-note 2).
Wakamatsu’s composition is not only instrumental in making the direct and indirect impact of the earthquake and the tsunami sensible but also in evoking the chaotic atmosphere that these natural phenomena cause. To evoke this chaos – environmental as well as psycho-social chaos, Wakamatsu utilizes a blend of shaky framing, frantic camera movement, and static shots (Cine-note 1). While the use of static shots to frame the impact of the earthquake may seem odd, it is especially via these static (‘objective’) shots that the impact of the earthquake, i.e. how it shakes everything, and the tsunami can be truly underlined. The composition framing the impact of the tsunami – one of the most impressive moments of the narrative – for instance, allows the spectator, who is, of course, in full-knowledge of what happened at Fukushima, to truly feel the meaning of the signifier ‘disaster’.
But it is not only the visual composition that makes the impact of the natural disaster sensible, but also the exquisite sound-design. It is, in fact, due to the powerful sound-design that the visual composition can evoke the disaster so powerfully – without the sound-design the visual framing of the disaster would just fall flat. The musical accompaniment, either dramatic and heroic or mysteriously foreboding, infuses an effective tension into the narrative. The music reminds the spectator, at all times, about the extra-ordinary risk – e.g. the exposure to high levels of radiation – the workers face and subtly foreshadows the very failure of their attempt to avoid a meltdown.
Fukushima 50 is not only a narrative about the problematic functioning of Japan’s rigid hierarchal systems and the sacrificial heroics of those at the Daiichi plant, but also touches upon our misplaced trust in his ability to control nature and our blind reliance on ‘cheap’ nuclear energy. Yes, Fukushima 50 is a mainstream film in heart and soul, offering moments of sentimentality and dramatic moments ever empowered by slight overacting, but it is only as a mainstream film that it can become an effective warning against further relying on nuclear energy alone to power the country.
Narra-note 1: The Director-General of Nuclear Safety Agency, for instance, confesses in a heated discussion with the prime minister that he is, in fact, incompetent – he has no background to fulfill his position as it should.
Cine-note 1: Wakamatsu also utilizes other techniques in his composition to evoke the impact of Tohoku quake and tsunami. To give the spectator an overview of how the water has conquered the plant, for instance, he uses a slow fluid spatial moving shot. And to highlight the impact of the tsunami on two plant-workers he does not hesitate to use a slow-motion shot. Also noteworthy are Wakamatsu’s use of POV shots.
Narra-note 2: The most ironical and painful element in the narrative, an element further underlining the structural problems of the Japanese rigid hierarchal bureaucratic structure, concerns the reactions following the stabilization of the drywell pressure in reactor 2. Those who are praised and congratulated are not those who are did their best to avoid a full-blown disaster but the high-level officials who have done literally nothing.