Land Of Hope (Cert 15)
1 Disc (Distributor: Third Window Films) Running Time: 134 minutes approx.
In a small rural residential area, Yasuhiko Ono (Isao Natsuyagi) and his wife Chieko (Naoko Otani) run a small dairy farm alongside neighbours Ken Suzuki (Denden), his wife Meiko (Mariko Tsutsui), son Mitsuru (Yutaka Shimizu) and his girlfriend Yoko (Hikari Kajiwara). When an earthquake causes a nuclear plant at nearby Nagashima explodes everywhere inside a 20km radius is quarantined and the residents are forced to evacuate. However the quarantine lines ends across the front yard of the Ono home leaving the elderly couple isolated from everyone else. With Chieko suffering from dementia, Yasuhiko refuses to be evacuated, despite the insistence of their son Yoichi (Jun Murakami) and wife Izumi (Megumi Kagurazaka), whom he sends away to live a safer life.
If anyone was going to be the first person to make a fictionalised account in the wake of the Fukushima nuclear disaster of 2011 then the smart money would have been on Sion Sono, a bold and contemporary filmmaker who manages to create his own unnerving worlds while tapping into the zeitgeist concerns of his native Japan. The Land of Hope finds Sono in a mellow mood, in the sense that the sex obsessed, blood and guts assault on the senses of his much lauded “Hate Trilogy” – Love Exposure, Cold Fish and Guilty Of Romance – has been eschewed in favour of straight ahead but poignant and dramatic storytelling, following on from his previous film Himizu.
Sono’s script covers a number of fears arising from the fallout of the Fukushima tragedy and addresses them head in his typically confrontational fashion. The Onos are a proud and traditional couple, having spent their married lives on the farm, Yasuhiko his whole life. As Chieko’s condition worsens Yasuhiko is even more resolute that they stay put for fear of what the change may do to her. But in a selfless move he is quick to send Yoichi and Izumi away for their own safety – a smart move as Izumi discovers she is pregnant. With the sombre news stories on TV and the books on nuclear power given to her by Yasuhiko, Izumi soon develops Radiophobia, sealing the house in bubblewrap and wearing a contamination suit all the time. Yoichi thinks his wife has snapped but reluctantly goes along with her, finally siding with her when the rest of the neighbourhood begin mocking her.
A subplot features Mitsuru Suzuki and Yoko, the latter’s family living near Nagashima at the time of the explosion. While living in a rescue shelter where the families are separated by walls of cardboard, Yoko fears for her parents so she and Mitsuru return to her home town (some of the shots were taken in Fukushima) to find them, becoming outlaws for breaking through the police blockade. Mitsuru seems to have suspected the worst right off the bat but Yoko remains optimistic her parents are still alive, despite her house being nothing more than rubble. Sono’s offbeat touch rears its head here when the young couple meet two very young kids who tell them that they must move forward one step at a time before disappearing into thin air – Sono’s rallying message to his fellow countrymen as well as subtle warning to not repeat history, a reference to Japan’s lightning fast adoption of post WWII industrialisation.
With a running time of 134 minutes there is a case for a bit of pruning, especially late in the second act, but Sono has the knack of ensuring his screen time is put to good use and the content is never dull. The main focus is on the two generations of the Ono family and the two separate struggles they must endure. While Izumi and Yoichi’s concerns are for the future, Yasuhiko and Chieko are tied to the past, their actions and reactions to their respective situations indicative of their age group.
The plight of the younger couple is a little more comical, with the sight of Izumi happily walking about town in her bright yellow contamination suit, earning herself the nickname of “The Astronaut”. When Yoichi begins to realise his wife’s concerns are valid and that radiation is everywhere, he decides they need to move as far away as possible from the contaminated areas. But where would that be since radiation travels far and wide. In one cynical scene a doctor reveals to Yoichi that the media have been covering up the truth about how far spread the radiation is after Fukushima. This is born out of the Japanese people not trusting their government when they say all nuclear plants will be shut down by 2030.
For man with the reputation for gore and extreme imagery, Sono handles this tale with the utmost sensitivity and respect. Where he could have used scaremongering tactics to shock people into action, he simply presents a well thought out and tender tale that doesn’t offer any answers just ideas and “what ifs”. Even with the barbed attacks on his own government, Sono lives up to the film’s title to suggest that there is hope post Fukushima and people should embrace this ideal and work towards it – one step at a time, of course.
Some of the cast may be familiar to Sono fans, including his gorgeous wife Megumi Kagurazaka and Cold Fish star Denden, who has a smaller role here. However the film belongs to the elderly couple Naoko Otani and Isao Natsuyagi, whose touching and tragic relationship mirrors that of Emmanuelle Riva and Jean-Louis Trintignant triumphant turns in French drama Amour. The only critique that could be made is occasionally the soundtrack is a little intrusive and too dramatic for its own good, otherwise this film is pure Sono.
It’s becoming something of a cliché but “Sion Sono does it again” is the best way to sum up The Land Of Hope. Once again we are taken on an unexpectedly sublime and powerfully emotional journey and we end up much richer for it. Another immense experience courtesy of the Japanese master.
70-minute “Making Of”
Rating – **** ½
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