Fukushima 50 (Japan, 2020) [JAPAN CUTS 2020]

March 11, 2011: an earthquake rocks North-East Japan. Soon a tsunami follows, and next day the whole world knows that Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power station is in trouble. This is the premise of Setsuro Wakamatsu’s film, the title stemming from foreign press naming ‘Fukushima 50’ the 50 front-line workers, who struggled to keep the nuclear power plant in control.

Inside the control room of the nuclear plant: it is 14:46 when shift supervisor Izaki (Koichi Sato), and his staff experience the earthquake and follow the meters, when a tsunami warning follows. The plant is in trouble, with the sea wall not keeping the huge tsunami outside. Water floods the plant, the electricity is cut out, and the staff has to see how to get it back. Soon bigger problems follow: they have to start cooling the reactors, and in order to do so some brave ones have to go inside the engine room to turn on the vents. Containment vessel pressure nees to be put down, and the men have to do additional shifts despite the high radiation. One containment vessel blows up.

Meanwhile, in Tokyo, the plant’s owner, Tokyo Electric Power Company (Tepco) headquarters is in disarray. An emergency team marches in, and starts following the protocol. Prime minister takes matters in his hands and wants rapid decisions and action.

In a sense Fukushima 50 can be seen as Japan’s equivalent to the HBO series Chernobyl (2019). It is, similarly to Chernobyl, based on real-life interviews of the persons involved in the crisis, from the plant workers to then Prime Minister Naoto Kan, as compiled by Ryusho Kadota in 2012. Similar to Chernobyl, the frontline staff at the plant is courageous and skillful, whereas the leadership of the company is nothing of. Yoshida, the site superintendent of the plant (Ken Watanabe) decides to go against the company head instructions, and use sea water to cool the reactors. Tepco’s rational was that sea water would ruin the reactors beyond repair, whereas Yoshida knows that if the reactors blow up, dangerous amounts of radiation will reach a vast area, including Tokyo. When faced with a possible melt down, the company head considers pulling the staff away, but PM Kan orders them to stay. Through teamwork, thought-out action, and pure luck, the plant does not turn into Chernobyl, though a huge amount of radiation leaks to the surroundings. Interestingly, the film has a clip about the worst possibility of what could have happened: Tokyo being hit by a wind carrying radioactive particles.

Interspersed are scenes of plant workers’ families, who are being evacuated from their homes in Tomioka city to a temporary shelter at a gym, worrying over their loved ones. Meanwhile, the U.S. military bases are getting ready to help, which results into the famous Operation Tomodachi (Friends). These parts seem unnecessary: they don’t add to the main theme of the film, and instead the film could have used more scenes of Yoshida and Tepco headquarters. Although based on real events, Yoshida is the only character in the film to be based on a real Fukushima plant worker. All the others are fictionalized. Yoshida passed away due to cancer two years after the accident. The film also uses news clips of the real Fukushima Daiichi from 2011.

The film differs from Chernobyl in its general approach. It is more mainstream in style and has two A-list male stars in Sato and Watanabe, but manages to steer away from being too sentimental. Wakamatsu succeeds in capturing the chaos and uncertainty that must have caught everyone at the plant by surprise while also showing the hard conditions under which the frontline workers had to struggle to contain the damage. Criticism is thrown at the electric power company in Tokyo, whose senior figures seem to have lost their leadership ability, leaving the responsibility to Yoshida and the Prime Minister. Ultimately, the film delivers a welcome message about man’s arrogance over nature – it is truly chilling to think how close Fukushima came to a Chernobyl-like disaster.

Fukushima 50 is streaming as part of JAPAN CUTS: Festival of New Japanese Film from July 17-30.