I first saw “Nuclear Nation,” a haunting documentary about the Fukushima meltdown, at its New York première, late last year. It felt very Japanese to me. Instead of looping the most sensational footage—frothy waves demolishing harbors and main streets, exasperated talking heads—“Nuclear Nation” chronicles, through three seasons, the post-disaster struggles faced by so-called nuclear refugees from the tiny town of Futaba, one of several officially condemned and abandoned communities near the site of the disaster.
The opening sequence of the movie is eerily similar to that of “Akira,” Katsuhiro Otomo’s award-winning animated sci-fi epic from 1988. In both films, a howling wind sounds in the middle distance as the camera focusses on and fetishizes elaborate industrial infrastructure. When the wind suddenly fades to silence, catastrophe ensues: in “Akira,” we see the nuclear cratering of eighties-era Tokyo urban sprawl; in “Nuclear Nation,” it’s the implosion of the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power plant and the subsequent poisoning of farmlands, fisheries, and rural homes. One is a harrowing fiction echoing Japan’s historical nightmares at Hiroshima and Nagasaki; the other is a somber document of an ongoing and very present horror in and around Fukushima, one whose third anniversary is being marked today in Japan with moments of silence and prayer, official memorials, and televised updates on the most current statistics and predictions.
In another, a husband, who lost his wife to the tsunami and nuclear aftermath, and his son try to perform a proper burial in their visit. But the coastal winds and slashing rains conspire against their most earnest hopes. Their bouquets are flayed by gusts. They keep checking their watches, knowing they have to return to the buses before the clock ticks down. The very peace they seek for themselves and their lost matron is chewed up and spat out by indifferent natural forces. When the weather becomes too hard to bear even for the audience, the son explodes at his father, who is losing control amid the wind and delicacy and humility of the task. “Hurry up!” the son shouts, as his father fumbles with their disintegrating flowers. When the father tries to collect the petals from the surrounding pools, the son shouts, “No, no! Don’t touch the water! Don’t touch it! It’s poison!”
What passes for the main character in “Nuclear Nation,” and in the plight of the unfinishable story of Fukushima, is Futaba’s former mayor, Katsutaka Idogawa. His story anchors the narrative, and it is brutally banal. Humiliated by Tokyo politicians, disappointing his constituency, his final admission is that he trusted others too much, and will never overcome the loss. Idogawa was ousted earlier this year, replaced by a more Tokyo-friendly mayor, Funahashi told me. If you can’t go home again, then “Nuclear Nation,” he promises, is just the first of many installments about a story of human disaster that may never end.