Nuclear Nation: Film Review

Sympathetic doc argues that survivors' travails are far from over.

Atsushi Funahashi follows nearly a year in the life of refugees from the Fukushima disaster.

Following a group of refugees from Japan's 2011 tsunami-instigated nuclear disaster long after most of the world's media outlets had gone home, Atsushi Funahashi's Nuclear Nation keeps a patient tally of how many displaced citizens live on the floor of a school room two months, five months, nine months after the disaster. Empathetic and occasionally enlightening, the film is worthwhile as journalism and in the ongoing debate over nuclear power, but will have a hard time attracting attention in theaters; cable should treat it somewhat better, though this human-interest film isn't the definitive Fukushima doc some may expect.

The setting is a school on the outskirts of Tokyo offering temporary refuge to over 1,400 residents of Futaba, the small town adjacent to the Fukushima Daiichi power plant. One room has become a makeshift Town Hall, another is a distribution center for free produce and bento-box meals; in the larger rooms, families have spread tatami mats and done what they can to carve out domestic spaces for themselves.

"There's a lineup everywhere you look," says a resident who, two months after the doc's beginning, is one of the 1001 evacuees still sleeping at the school. Funahashi checks in as the seasons change, following some families who secure private apartments nearby but keeping his main focus here, on citizens who've lost everything and have yet to hear an apology that sounds sincere to them. (We witness both public mea culpas and residents' critiques of them.) Eventually, he returns to the disaster site with the few who are allowed, for two hours with special protective gear, to go looking for treasured possessions.

Much of what we witness here could be seen in the wake of disaster and warfare around the world, but when following Futaba's mayor, Katsutaka Idogawa, as he tries to reconcile past and future, Funahashi finds a useful angle on this particular tragedy. Idogawa has long belonged to a group of small-town mayors advocating for nuclear plants; his town received huge tax revenue from the plant when it was built, using the money for public projects they could never have afforded. But even before Fukushima destroyed much of the town, the money it brought had run out. Futaba was near bankruptcy.

No voices outside the Futaba community appear here to argue pro/con over nuclear power; no journalists talk of what they learned about causes and repercussions. This is the residents' story alone, and the filmmakers try to editorialize as little as possible. The Mayor comes closest to delivering a moral conclusion when, after years of lobbying for eco-friendly, job-creating nuclear power, he admits he's changed his mind.

Production Company: Documentary Japan, Big River Films
Director-Editor: Atsushi Funahashi
Producer: Yoshiko Hashimoto
Directors of photography: Atsushi Funahashi, Yutaka Yamazaki
Music: Ryuichi Sakamoto, Haruyuki Suzuki
No rating, 96 minutes