The Horses of Fukushima (Matsuri No Uma): Dubai/Filmart Review

Show horses who miraculously survived the tsunami and nuclear accident in Japan offer food for thought in a compelling, if sometimes unfocused, documentary.

A Fukushima doc from a heart-wrenching new perspective.

Alongside the human loss and tragedy of the tsunami and nuclear meltdown of Fukushima exist other poignant dramas, such as those of the dogs, cats and livestock that couldn’t escape the disaster. Their helplessness is particularly heart-breaking onscreen, underlining the idea that innocence is no protection when natural and human catastrophe strikes. While The Horses of Fukushima pulls no punches in following the fate of a stable of show horses, it comes with a happy ending that makes it less gloomy and more a symbol of rebirth and renewal. It has been a popular festival title, mostly recently at Dubai, and could do equally well with TV audiences.

Like most writers and directors who have filmed the Fukushima aftermath, Yoju Masubayashi is clearly angry at Japan’s cavalier misuse of nuclear power, as was evident in his first film, Fukushima: Memories of the Lost Landscape. But politics stays in the background of this compelling tale about 40 horses trained to parade in a thousand-year-old festival. It celebrates the contribution horses have made to Japanese society, primarily in farming and warfare, and it takes place in Minami-soma, just 13 miles from Reactor No. 1.

In the wake of the nuclear accident on March 11, 2011, a rancher named Shinichiro Tanaka was forced to evacuate the zone and abandon his herd. When he came back weeks later, he found seven of the animals had died of starvation, and others were suffering from traumatic injuries and severe undernourishment.

One of the survivors is a fine-looking horse named Miracle Quest, who emerges from the disaster with a grotesquely swollen penis caused by radioactivity. The film is largely the story of his recovery, although the price he pays is a heavy one. Close shots of the inflammation are a shock, and he can’t even be operated on until the swelling goes down. 

The film could have been more focused, however, and Matsubayashi often seems to be editing together different stories – the horses’, the owner’s, the handlers’, the region’s and the nation's. While ideally they should all flow together, here the effect is a bit schizophrenic. An example is the owner’s extremely realistic view of his horseflesh; as soon as the animals grow too old to ride or parade, they get sent to the meat packers’.  If this is their predestined fate – and the filmmaker refuses to take a moral stance on what is primarily an economic issue for the rancher – then a lot of the pathos inherent is the beautiful images seems like avoidable sentimentality.

But perhaps the radioactivity itself, ironically enough, has made the herd inedible even as animal food and will save them from this fate. Certainly their owner nobly spends a great deal of money feeding and caring for them, even when their future is a question mark. He also defies a government order to exterminate all livestock in the contaminated zone, winning an exception that allows him to keep the horses alive. Most viewers will be happy just to contemplate the gorgeous, soul-expanding images of Miracle Quest and his companions joyfully cavorting in a spring meadow. 

Venue: Dubai Film Festival (Muhr AsiaAfrica Documentary), Dec. 8, 2013.Production companies: Documentary Japan Inc., Tongpoo Films, 3 JoMa Films

Director/Screenwriter: Yoju Masubayashi

Producers: Yoshiko Hashimoto, Shigaki Kinoshita

Director of photography: Yoju Masubayashi

Editor: Yoju Masubayashi

Sales Agent: Fujioka Asako

No rating, 74 minutes.