Film Review: Atsushi Funahashi’s “Nuclear Nation”

Among the loss of life and destruction that occurred as a result of the 2011 Japan earthquake and tsunami was the nuclear contamination of the town of Futaba. Atsushi Funahashi’s documentary “Nuclear Nation” serves as both a moving requiem for the lost town, as well as a quietly outraged expose of how the people of Futaba were lied to, and neglected by the power company and by the Japanese government.

Futaba was home to the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power plant, which melted during the disaster. The radiation emissions that occurred made the town uninhabitable, forcing the entire population to be evacuated to the closest safe area. All governmental services, as well as shelters for the homeless, are now located in a high school in Saitama prefecture, some 250 kilometers away. The former residents of Futaba now live as “nuclear refugees,” subsisting on bento box handouts. Futaba, like a number of other towns in Japan, subjected themselves to a Faustian bargain when they allowed nuclear power plants to be built on their land. In exchange for this, they were given subsidies and promises of development assistance.

For a while, this arrangement worked well. Jobs became available in town, and the local government got substantial amounts of free money to play with.  But there was a steep price to pay; the false assurances by the Tokyo Electric Power Company (TEPCO), the owner of the plant, that this was all completely safe turned out to be not the case when disaster struck. Falsified reports, the misrepresentation of safety issues regarding the nearby reactor and the town’s own mismanagement of its finances – resulting in a debt that Futaba had to climb out of by building two more reactors – worsened the situation. The people of Futaba made the sacrifices necessary to generate the power that Tokyo and other big municipalities ran on, and made a big gamble with their lives and property, one which they lost big time.

“Nuclear Nation” is a film that listens patiently, and at length, to the voices of those who lost the people and things most precious to them, and mourns the people, and their way of life, that have passed away. (This mood is greatly enhanced by somber yet vividly rendered cinematography by Funahashi and Yutaka Yamazaki, and Ryuichi Sakamoto’s spare, elegiac piano score that graces the film’s final images.)  Constituents are forced to be rootless. They also face discrimination as a result of being exposed to radiation, and humiliation because the town’s pariah reputation. When the mayor of Futaba, along with representatives of other towns housing nuclear reactors, appeal for help, they face meaningless reassurances from government officials. These officials don’t even stay to hear from the representatives; they make seemingly scripted statements and hurry off before they can hear from those seeking their help. This leads to one of the film’s most memorable scenes: the mayor taking the government officials to task, calling them out as liars and condemning their stalling, waffling, and inaction in the face of his constituent’s urgent needs. In a later scene, residents from eight towns with nuclear plants protest this governmental inaction. “Let us go home!,” they cry.

But sadly, that home, in the case of Futaba, isn’t one that is fit to return to. Residents visiting the town are required to wear gas masks and protective suits, and their visits are strictly timed to reduce the risk of prolonged exposure to the still unsafe environment. Funahashi trains his camera on haunting images: ruined landscapes full of debris, and the indelible sight of cattle that wasted away for a month from lack of food or water, left to rot and calcify in their stables.

“Nuclear Nation” screens for a week-long run at Film Forum from Dec. 11-17. Director Atsushi Funahashi will appear in person on Dec. 11, 13, and 14 at the 8pm shows. For more information and to purchase tickets, visit Film Forum’s website.