Remembering March 11:

A review of Fukushima 50

Simon Paxton, Komazawa University [About | Email]

Volume 21, Issue 1 (Film Review 1 in 2021). First published in ejcjs on 14 April 2021.

Director: Wakamatsu Setsurō
Original Author: Film based on Kadota Ryūshō’s non-fiction book: On the Brink: The Inside Story of Fukushima Daiichi
Adapted Screenplay by: Maekawa Yoichi
Actors: Watanabe Ken, Satō Kōichi, Yoshioka Hidetaka, Yasuda Narumi
Released: March 6, 2020
Run time: 2hrs 2mins

At 2:46pm on March 11, 2011, Japan was rocked by a magnitude 9.0 earthquake that was followed by a tsunami which would leave a path of destruction that stunned the world. Not only did the tsunami claim the lives of over 15,000 people and leave thousands homeless, but it would cause severe damage to the Fukushima Daiichi Nuclear Power Plant, presenting a radiation risk of unfathomable proportions. To this day, ten years after the disaster, the Fukushima nuclear power plant is still being cleaned up. In the direct aftermath of the earthquake and tsunami, workers at the Fukushima power plant were faced with the challenge of minimizing the effects of the disaster and fulfilling their responsibility to their local area, and Japan as a whole, to reduce the impact of the nuclear disaster. With the risk of radiation poisoning, fifty workers at the Fukushima power plant remained to battle the disaster, and these fifty became known in international media sources as the ‘Fukushima 50’.][1]

Wakamatsu Setsurō’s film Fukushima 50 is based on Kadota Ryūshō’s non-fiction book, Shi no fuchi wo mita otoko Yoshida Masao to Fukushima Dai ichi genpatsu (死の淵を見た男吉田昌郎と福島第一原発), and tells the story of these fifty workers and the challenges they faced in the aftermath of one of Japan’s biggest catastrophes. Although based on actual events, this film is structured as fiction and therefore the names of characters in the film have been altered—that is, however, with the exception of ‘superintendent Yoshida’ (played by Watanabe Ken), for which permission was granted to use his real name.][2]

Fukushima 50 was released on March 6, 2020, 9 years after the disaster occurred. Unfortunately, its release also coincided with the global pandemic caused by the corona virus disease (COVID-19), which subsequently resulted in cinemas in Japan experiencing dwindling numbers. It is unfortunate that the film’s success may therefore have been adversely affected by its ill-fated timing. Despite this, the film fared relatively well at the box office, has been met with positive reviews, and was the recipient of a slew of awards across several categories at the 44th Japanese Academy awards in 2021.

This is not the first film to approach the topic of the Fukushima disaster. There have been documentary films such as Welcome to Fukushima (2013) and Fukushima: A Nuclear Story (2015). As to be expected, documentaries that cover the Fukushima disaster provide a vastly different perspective from that of Fukushima 50, which is the first large-scale dramatisation of the disaster. In some respects, there are similarities to the film China Syndrome (1979), directed by James Bridges and starring Jane Fonda and Jack Lemmon (1925-2001), which is based around how an earthquake resulted in accidents at a nuclear power plant in Southern California, and which is purported to be also based on actual events.

The key characters in the film are superintendent Yoshida Masao, who serves in the control room of the nuclear power plant and is responsible for communicating with workers on site as well as with company headquarters in Tokyo, and Izaki Toshio (played by Sato Koichi), who is the chief of Fukushima Daiichi Nuclear Power Plants 1 and 2. The workers embark on a mission to cool down the nuclear reactors and avoid a nuclear meltdown by pumping water into, and trying to release pressure from, the nuclear reactors. Of course, their actions are fraught with danger as the tsunami engulfs the power plant, the station loses power—referred to as ‘SBO’, short for ‘Station Black Out’—and explosions hinder their actions along the way. There are moments of extreme tension when it looks like things could escalate to a level that could put the whole of Japan at risk. Local community members, which include family members of those at the nuclear power plant, are evacuated. Communication between superintendent Yoshida and the company headquarters are tense as they battle to contain the disaster. Things become even more tense when the then Prime Minister Kan Naoto (played by Shirō Sano) insists on visiting the nuclear power plant.

One can only imagine what it must have been like to have been amidst the chaos ensuing from the Fukushima disaster, and to attempt to capture that atmosphere on film is an ambitious task indeed. It is impossible to determine how accurately the film depicts actual events, and individuals’ versions of events would no doubt differ to some degree anyway. While the film does a fine job of capturing the chaos, it also does a good job at capturing some quieter moments. As the beleaguered Fukushima 50 risk their lives to prevent the disaster from literally destroying Eastern Japan, their brief moments of reflection are touching and enhance the overall quality of the film. One particularly moving moment, in contrast to the chaos that makes up the majority of the film, is when workers in the control room take a brief respite, during which time superintendent Yoshida hums the Fukushima folk song Sōma Nagareyama. Yoshida’s rendition seems to pay homage to the people of Fukushima while also providing a brief moment in which the workers can reflect on the gravity of the situation in which they find themselves.     

Scenes of international cooperation and footage of international media covering the Fukushima disaster appear throughout the film. The US military, led by their commissioned officer (played by long-term Japan resident, Daniel Kahl), features in the film and are seen providing support in the aftermath of the disaster, delivering supplies to evacuees in what is named operation ‘Tomodachi, literally, operation ‘Friend.’ At one point the US military also expresses the sentiment of regret in considering that Japan has already been the victim of an atomic bomb in the past.

While not an outwardly anti-nuclear film, the film concludes with a message that reminds viewers not to underestimate the power of nature. The Fukushima power plant was protected by a wall to withstand a tsunami of up to ten meters because it was thought that there was no risk of a bigger tsunami. This, however, was a mistake that would lead to immense destruction. The film suggests that, although nuclear power may be clean energy, the potential for disasters such as Fukushima are too great. In a time when climate and clean energy are such topical aspects of our political time, this film about a major disaster in post-war Japan is certainly thought provoking.

Notes

[1.] In reality, there were more than fifty workers who remained on site.


2.    See: ‘Fukushima 50: Press Conference’, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=o9SU-Hv9VQE.

About the Author

Simon Paxton is an English language lecturer at Komazawa University in Tokyo, Japan. He has an MA from Saitama University in Japanese and Asian Studies, and a PhD from Macquarie University in International Studies. His research interests include kanji acquisition for non-kanji background learners of Japanese, Japanese film, and traditional Japanese conjuring. 

Email the author

Back to top