On March 11th 2011
an earthquake and subsequent tsunami hit Japan’s east coast. It was the most powerful earthquake to hit Japan since records began and had a devastating effect on the whole country. The tsunami hit the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power plant causing a number of nuclear accidents including nuclear meltdowns and the release of nuclear material into the atmosphere. It was the biggest nuclear disaster since Chernobyl in the 1980s. This year at the Edinburgh International Film Festival there have been three separate films about the disaster and its aftermath.
The earthquake and tsunami devastated the landscape, we have all seen the images of destruction; boats where houses should be, waste land instead of towns and nuclear power stations crumpled. These images are yet again on show here in the documentaries Nuclear Nation and No Man’s Zone. The difference between the two documentaries is how these images are used. Nuclear Nation focuses on Futaba, one of the affected towns, whose residents can no longer go home and are relocated to a Tokyo suburb to live in an abandoned school due to the radiation. No Man’s Zone follows a documentary crew as they visit the area and shows us the extent of the destruction, ghost towns and towns soon to be demolished.
The success or failure of these documentaries relied not on what images of destruction they showed but on the effect this destruction had on the people of this area. It is Nuclear Nation that triumphs here, by focusing on the town of Futaba and its survivors this film has a real human heart to it. The mayor of Futaba stands out as a man trying to keep his people together, slowly coming to realise that he may never be able to take them home. His anger and frustration at the situation are clear as he reminisces about the town and curses the nuclear power plant for ever being built. The government and the nuclear company promised so much for a small town, subsidy money and well-paid jobs that ultimately mean nothing now that the place is uninhabitable. As numerous interviewees point out if it were just an earthquake and tsunami they could be back in Futaba now rebuilding, it’s the existence of the nuclear plant that stops them from going home.
At its best No Man’s Zone also shows the human side to this disaster with a smattering of interviews from survivors. Unfortunately the interviews are few and far between and instead we focus on the long shots of the new landscape making the film seem baron. This baron feeling is deliberate; it mirrors the baron nature of the wasteland that now exists where there were once towns and farms. The director, Toshi Fujiwara, has said that he was attempting to create a ghost film without it being a horror movie. This is achieved but by dehumanising the situation to such an extent No Man’s Zone lacks the emotional drive that is required. On top of this the narrator sounds cold and monotonous, I believe this is to show the seriousness of the disaster, not that the viewer isn’t already aware of this, but it just adds to the overall effect of dullness. This should be a documentary about people and all that they have lost; family and friends, their homes and their livelihoods. Instead it is about long sweeping shots of destruction and empty towns and countryside, which just isn’t enough.
Although both documentaries cover the
same situation it is Nuclear Nation that stands out as the better film. Audiences will connect more with the characters of this film rather than the empty shots of No Man’s Zone.