Memories of Fukushima

For my Cultural Memory course, I decided to write a paper about the Fukushima nuclear disaster that took place on March 11th, 2011. Since it’s been 10 years ago, and recently a movie came out about how the power plant workers at Fukushima Daiichi dealt with the looming disaster, it seemed like a great topic to write a paper about. In this post, I will do some sort of movie review, in my own unexperienced way, about a movie I think should have had a lot more influence on the international market.

Introduction

10 years ago, on March 11, 2011, an earthquake of 9.0 on the moment magnitude scale occurred at a mere 72 km from the East coast of Japan, which lasted for approximately six minutes. This earthquake was the most powerful one ever recorded in Japan, and the fourth most powerful worldwide since record-keeping began in 1900. It triggered multiple powerful tsunami which washed away hundreds of evacuation sites in the Sendai area of Japan.
The official figures reported 19.474 deaths, 6242 injured, 2556 missing, and over 200.000 people still living in temporary housing away from their homes.
The tsunami caused the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power plant to melt down in three of its reactors, forcing them to dump radioactive water into the Pacific Ocean. Hundreds of thousands of residents from nearby associated evacuation zones were put in danger due to these events.
During the events of this earthquake, and the subsequent tsunami and nuclear meltdown of those three reactor cores, a group of fifty employees remained on-site in the Daiichi Nuclear Power Plant, after 750 others were evacuated. The media applauded these workers’ bravery, calling them ‘heroes’. This resulted in them becoming known as the ‘Fukushima Fifty’, granting them international fame and admiration.

In 2020, 9 years after the disaster, a Japanese film directed by Setsuro Wakamatsu and written by Yoichi Maekawa was released. Starring Watanabe Ken and Koichi Sato, this movie depicts the Fukushima Fifty’s heroic deeds during the events of the Great Tohoku Earthquake. It is subsequently titled ‘Fukushima Fifty’ as well. The film is based on Ryusho Kadota’s book ‘On the Brink: The Inside Story of Fukushima Daiichi’, and is the first Japanese film to depict the disaster.

Major SPOILER warning for the next part, since I closely discuss the events of the first day of the disaster, comparing how they are portrayed in the movie to real life.


Fukushima Fifty

Within the first seconds of the movie, we are reminded that it is indeed based on a true story, ‘事実にもとづく物語’ is written in a simple white font, not at all dramatic, while we sweep over a cliffside view of the ocean, with the Fukushima Daiichi Nuclear Power Plant moving into view.
Much more dramatic now, 2011.3.11 PM2:46 fills up the screen, in bold white letters.

This is the exact minute the earthquake happened, making one of the disasters this movie is depicting happen within the first minutes. In that sense, this is not a regular disaster movie, which usually has at least some build up to their particular disasters. No, this movie drops you straight into the action, with the first disasters of the earthquake and tsunami. The main focus of this movie is how the nuclear power plant workers dealt with this disaster and the threat of a nuclear disaster caused by it.

“A 9.1 magnitude earthquake strikes off the coast of Honshu Island at a depth of about 24 kilometers. The Fukushima I power plant’s nuclear reactors 1, 2, and 3 are automatically shut down by the tremor… The tremor also cut the power plant off from the Japanese electricity grid; however, backup diesel generators kicked in to continue cooling.” These events are portrayed in the movie exactly as they happened. The response of the workers in the nuclear power plant as depicted in the movie, was immediate and precise. One can only imagine it would have gone the same way in real life, seeing how workers in a power plant will probably undergo frequent disaster situation trainings, especially in a country as Japan with very frequent earthquakes. The occurrence of the tsunami that flooded the nuclear reactors, introduces us to the title screen of the movie.

Inside the power plant Toshio Izaki (played by Koichi Sato), the shift supervisor, organizes his crew and warns them of the dangers present at the time. A nuclear meltdown is feared, backed up with some impressive CGI visuals. This part felt a bit like exposition for the viewer, but it did not feel out of place at all, especially since the threat of nuclear meltdown along with the fear of one, was real at the time. Power plant manager Masao Yoshida (played by Ken Watanabe) at the same time, is looking into preventive measures to stabilize the cores of the power plant. He requests the SDF to supply them with firetrucks, since their own had been incapacitated by the tsunami. Both these characters will be discussed more closely later on, since they are the 2 protagonists of the movie.

The story in the movie steadily continues, with two power plant workers going to physically check on the status of the nuclear reactors at 17:11, since they can no longer rely on their reading because all the power has been cut. Portrayals of events like these only serve to broaden the narrative of the story with a logical sequence, as well as to get the viewers more acquainted with other characters in the movie, which play an objectively minor role in the movie, yet could have been of utmost importance to the events in real life as the heroes who risked their own life and limbs to secure the nuclear core and manually tried to prevent a meltdown.


At 7:45 PM a press conference is called, and a nuclear emergency status is announced.
To heighten the drama, we are now introduced to the family of Izaki in an attempt to pull at the heartstrings of the viewer. Throughout the rest of the movie, they play a very minor role in what feels like a B-plotline. However, their introduction leads us to the evacuation efforts starting around 9 pm for residents within a 3 kilometer radius of the Fukushima Daiichi Station.


In the night of March 12th, the decision was made to vent some of the steam from reactor unit 1, to relieve the pressure inside the containment unit, since the pressure had exceeded 600 kPa, 1.5 times more than the allowed pressure inside the unit. This releases a small amount of radiation, which was a major concern in the decision making process, or at least it was portrayed like this in the movie. An explosion would obviously release much more radiation, endangering the entirety of East Japan. This was a major concern in real life as well since an explosion of this size could rival and easily exceed the nuclear disaster of Chernobyl. The movie hammers in that venting like this had never been tried anywhere on earth, which adds to the dramatic feel of the movie as well.
At half past 5 in the morning, the decision to vent steam had been taken in real life. The decision as to who will do the venting, since it has to be done manually, adds another tearjerker moment. Izaki himself volunteers to take the heavy task of venting on himself, after which nearly all of his subordinates volunteer themselves to go in his stead, asking him to remain safe and to stay in his commanding role. This scene is an excellent example of the group mentality often seen in Japanese society. One could call it peer pressure; others would name it ‘self-sacrificing for the greater good’.

The first day since the disastrous earthquake is now over. So far, the movie follows the realtime flow of events rather nicely. The most important events that take place in the movie are as follows:
After the venting of unit 1, unit 2 also started venting to relieve pressure. The evacuation of residents has now increased to a 10 kilometer radius. A hydrogen explosion in the reactor building of unit 1 causes massive damage to the building, although the primary containment of the reactor remains undamaged. This was an immediate effect of the venting earlier that day.


Later that day, Yoshida starts injecting seawater into reactor 1 in order to cool it. A risky maneuver which would contaminate tons of sea water but could prevent a meltdown from happening. He is ordered by his superiors to cease seawater injection, but ignoring this order, Yoshida continues. This is a major narrative throughout the entire movie, which also happened in real life. Masao Yoshida, and in broader sense the Fukushima Fifty, ignore and flat-out refuse to agree to the orders of TEPCO (the Tokyo Electric Power Company) for the safety of the people of Japan. This refusal of stopping the injection of seawater, however, is now thought to have been the main reason a larger nuclear disaster was prevented.
It was estimated that 70% of the fuel in unit 1 and 33% in unit 2 had melted by the 16th of March, yet in the end a national and global disaster was prevented thanks to the efforts of the Fukushima Fifty. An amount of radiation was however released, making the nearby area of Fukushima uninhabitable.


Aftermath

Eventually, the workers of the Daiichi Nuclear Power Plant prevented a major disaster and are finally allowed to leave the power plant. At this point, the movie focusses on Izaki who winds up in the evacuation camp his family is staying at. Izaki is welcomed back by his neighbors when he publicly apologizes for making their town unlivable. The townspeople are however grateful for his efforts, saying he did what he could until the very end. When Izaki’s father sees his son is still alive, they both nearly start crying, a very unexpected action in a public setting for a Japanese person. This obviously adds to the drama and exemplifies and amplifies the trauma they have both gone through, and the worries they had for each other’s safety and well-being.

In the last ten minutes of the movie, we skip forward to the spring of 2014. ‘Danny Boy’ is being played as we are shown the aftermaths of the nuclear disaster, as well as the efforts being made in making Fukushima inhabitable again. The resilience and fighting spirit of the Japanese people is made clear. Izaki drives his car through a lane of cherry blossoms in full bloom, a typical Japanese springtime event. These cherry blossoms, or sakura in Japanese, symbolize the rebirth of the area and the start of new life and new chances. An emotional flashback scene between Izaki and Yoshida makes the viewer rethink the beautiful history these two close friends share. A letter Yoshida had written 2 years after the disaster is read in voice over, whilst Izaki gets out of his car.

“Izaki. I may not be able to see you again, so I decided to write you this. It’s already been 2 years since the accident. We both had quite a rough experience. I thought Japan was through. That the rest was up to God or Buddha. I accepted my fate, that I was going to die there. If an accident happens, the first to die are the people at the plant. But if we die, the accident will go out of control. If we can’t save employees, there’s no way we could save local residents. Remember when you asked if we made a mistake? I think the answer to that question is finally within reach. We disrespected nature’s power. We believed that no tsunami over 10m would strike the plant. Without solid evidence, for over 40 years since Daiichi was built. We believed we controlled nature. It was human ego. Izaki. I’m so glad you were there with me then. Had things gotten any worse, I would have evacuated everyone and stayed until the end with you. I thought that you’d be willing to die with me.”

At this point it is revealed that Yoshida has passed away and we watch Izaki’s memories of the disaster and the funeral. On July 9, 2013, the real-life Masao Yoshida died from esophageal cancer, most likely not related to the exposure of nuclear material during the disaster.

The movie ends with a wide sweep over the cherry blossom filled town. A notice appears that the international media named the workers at the power plant the ‘Fukushima Fifty’, and that the theme of the 2020 Olympics and Paralympics in Tokyo is reconstruction. The torch relay starts in Fukushima, a clearly symbolic starting point.


Characters

Masao Yoshida is played by the most well-known actor in the entire movie, Ken Watanabe. He is the only actor with international fame and plays the main role in this movie. Masao Yoshida is also one of the few characters based on an actual person using their actual name. He was the plant manager of Fukushima Daiichi during the disaster and played a critical role by disobeying corporate headquarters orders to stop using seawater to cool the reactors. The use of seawater arguably prevented a much larger disaster from happening, which could have contaminated a large part of northern Japan.
Yoshida was diagnosed with esophageal cancer and passed away to this illness in 2013. It is very unlikely that his passing was a direct result of nuclear contamination since a cancer like that usually takes years to manifest.

Watanabe’s portrayal of Yoshida is one of a headstrong and steadfast manager who was not afraid to raise his voice when he needed to be heard. More than once the frustration with his corporate bosses shows clearly, yet his motives are obviously noble. His top priority is and always was the safety of his own people, and the prevention of a looming national disaster.

The character of Toshio Izaki, an old friend of Yoshida, can be summarized in a similar way. Although he has a calmer and much more down to earth personality, his leadership skills are top notch. During the largest part of the movie, he is on site in the power plant, where his delegation of his subordinates and his clear and direct communication with his bosses, namely Yoshida, show true strength. At critical times, he also prioritizes safety above everything else, even volunteering himself for an extremely dangerous mission. He shows his worries much different from Yoshida, yet it is clear throughout the movie he also has no idea how it will end. In general, you could say that his calm demeanor is one of the reasons the on-site team could perform as they have, and not result in an all-out chaos and panic.

Toshio Izaki’s role is portrayed by Koichi Sato, another well-known actor in Japan, but who has not breached the international market (yet).

If we look at the larger group of the plant workers, later named the Fukushima Fifty by international media, and how they cope with the disaster of the earthquake, the tsunami, and the looming nuclear catastrophe, we can truly see the Japanese worker mentality at work. Japanese business culture focuses on diligence, teamwork, and loyalty above all. In a stressful and life threatening situation as the one these people found themselves in, I would not be surprised should more than a few of them have cracked under the pressure. Yet throughout the movie, they remained professional, doing everything they can in their power to save the power plant and everybody involved. Their loyalty to their colleagues and their bosses, such as Yoshida and Izaki, is only one to be admired. During crucial times, we can really see how much they place the group’s identity over their own individuality. When Izaki himself volunteers to take on a risky task – after a minute of no one else volunteering – eventually nearly everyone volunteers to go instead of their boss. A true moment of loyalty to their superior. One could say their initial hesitation is one due to fear, but eventually loyalty wins over their personal fears.


Reviews

Most of the Japanese viewers seemed to like the movie, with a lot of them taking the events portrayed in this movie as fact for the largest part. A lot of them lived through the earthquake, and I can imagine all of them at least followed the national news in the days following the earthquake, since a national nuclear disaster was feared.
Some questions are asked by reviewers about the portrayal of TEPCO and the prime minister. It is true that they are portrayed as the antagonist of the movie, and the prime minister at the time, Naoto Kan, was not the most popular one.
The Japanese people do however seem very adamant on remembering. This tragedy and the resilience of the so-called Fukushima Fifty are engraved in the memories of the Japanese people. Some even say this movie should be shown as an educational piece for the younger generations in order to keep this event alive in the collective national memory of Japan.

Finding reviews for this movie in English proved to be a bit more difficult. The movie has been released just last year, which would explain the lack of reviewers. Luckily, I was able to find both positive and negative reviews on its IMDB page.
Again, we get a similar view, praising the Fukushima Fifty for their heroic actions to save their country. On the other hand, the plot is often bashed as being too simple, or not explanatory enough. The heroicness of the Fifty is seen as a form of glorification of the nation of Japan, a patriotic act, or even a form of propaganda. None of them mention TEPCO’s incompetence, my assumption being they do not know who or what TEPCO is, and getting them mixed up with the government, whose ignorance was clearly noted.


Concluding notes

Fukushima Fifty is a real-life disaster movie, based on the heroism of the titular characters in their efforts to save their country from a nuclear catastrophe. It realistically portrays events as they happened, with minor changes to serve the narrative of the movie. The characters in the movie are based on real people, with only a single one – the main protagonist Yoshida – actually named after his real-life counterpart. The movie serves as a stark reminder of what happened on that faithful day in March, in the hope of reminding the Japanese people of the heroism and hardship the Fifty went through. One could call this movie propaganda in a sense that it drives home the heroism of Yoshida and the Fukushima Fifty, in direct conflict with TEPCO, the Japanese government and the prime minister, which was generally not liked by the Japanese people.

In general, however, the Japanese people seem adamant in remembering the events of that day, the threat of nuclear disaster, and the self-sacrificing heroism of their own people. This movie should be used, according to a lot of people, as an example to remember the disaster. Alongside the disaster, this movie deserves to be added to the collective memory of the nation.
Outside of Japan, this movie has not made that much of an impression. The acting is often called stiff, emotionless, or outright bad. The plot and narrative are not clear enough, and the Fukushima Fifty serve as kamikaze or cowboys to save the day. The real events often do not play a role in how an outsider will remember this movie. They clearly did not go through the same fear and trauma the Japanese went through.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s