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During the two-year gap between the release of his two documentaries about the 2011 meltdown of Japan’s Fukushima Daiichi nuclear plant — the second one having just unspooled in the Berlinale’s Forum section — director Atsushi Funahashi has dabbled in small-screen detective drama. Watching Nuclear Nation II, which picks up the first film’s chronicle of the disorientation and despair felt by a small town’s residents as they navigate their first year as forced evacuees from their radiation-wrought homes, Funahashi’s dalliance with crime fiction makes perfect sense.
Covering the period between January 2012 (with the people of Futaba celebrating their first New Year in displacement) and ending with footage from 2014 and onscreen text outlining the decision to start burying contaminated waste bang in the center of those “dead-zone” towns, Nuclear Nation II plays out like victims falling prey to state-level transgressions. While nearly perennially unfolding in apparently sun-kissed terrain — land long abandoned and overgrown with weeds, mind you — the film exposes noir-like fatalism at play, as Funahashi puts together a collection of sequences expanding on the endless cycle of insults and ignominy thrown the evacuees’ way.
While Nuclear Nation II is somehow more episodic and less structurally rigorous than the previous installment, Funahashi’s engagement with his subjects remains as strong as ever. Its international premiere at Berlin — where the first film also bowed in 2012, also as a Forum title — is bound to be followed by a sustained run on the festival circuit. Both artistically oriented and socially conscious programmers will warm to the unflinching directness of Nuclear Nation II, just as the incident slips off the radar and fictional features on the tragedy become less evident and prominent.
With this film, Funahashi is also audacious enough to puncture the harmonious, united-we-stand veneer which captivated the world when the earthquake and tsunami struck northeastern Japan four years ago. As described in the film by a former mayor, Katsutaka Idogawa — who himself was removed from office because of political wrangling in the town hall — a mishandled natural catastrophe revealed “a distillation of the many facets of humanity.” Intrigue and infighting abound as grief morphs into anger, the subjects’ complaints directed not just at the government but also fellow townsfolk seen as having received better treatment. (One particular squabble involves a difference in monthly stipends — the sticking point being $200.)
The town’s new mayor, Shiro Izawa, sits dumbstruck in a conference as other municipal officials holler for the government to restart the atomic plants in their vicinities; nobody mentions Fukushima or Futaba, while the government resorts to small payoffs to close the evacuees’ case. The ingredients of a third film, unfortunately, are all there.
Production companies: Documentary Japan, Big River Films
Director: Atsushi Funahashi
Producers: Yoshiko Hashimoto
Director of photography: Atsushi Funahashi, Yutaka Yamazaki
Editor: Atsushi Funahashi
Music: Haruyuki Suzuki, with theme music by Ryuichi Sakamoto
Sales: Wide House
No rating; 115 minutes
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