Fukushima 50 Movie Review (Cert 12A)

Digital/VOD (Distributor: Altitude Film Entertainment) Running Time: 122 minutes approx. 

Release Date – March 11th

March 11th has become an infamous date, not just because it is my birthday but for the events in Japan at 2:46pm on that day in 2011. A 9.0 magnitude earthquake quickly followed by a tsunami struck the Fukushima Daiichi Nuclear Power Plant. The blackout in the station made it difficult to cool the reactor damaged by a meltdown.

The plant staff who worked tirelessly and selflessly to fix the reactor and protect the people of Fukushima were labelled the “Fukushima 50” by international press. This film, based on the book On the Brink: The Inside Story of Fukushima Daiichi by Ryusho Kadota is a dramatisation of the daring efforts of these brave men and women.

Adapted by Yōichi Maekawa, the film wastes no time with a set-up, opening with the earthquake that stunned the plant, something Japan is used to, that caused the initial disruption. Unit supervisor Toshio Isaki (Koichi Sato) sends a team to check the reactor and survey the damage outside, during which time the Tsunami hits, flooding the plant and cutting the power.

Elsewhere, chief Masao Yoshida (Ken Watanabe) is monitoring the situation and trying to organise help, instructing Isaki and his team in how to remedy the issues. With radiation leaking it is a matter of time before the whole area is contaminated; people have been evacuated, but no power at the plant means the reactor needs to be cooled manually.

Unfortunately, the directors of the plant’s owner Tokyo Electric Power Company (Tepco) are in disarray and without full knowledge of the situation, issue orders that are both impractical and counterproductive. The Japanese Prime Minister (Shiro Sano) pays a visit to the area, shouting orders out of ignorance to maintain his image as a pro-active leader in a crisis.

It has been well documented many Japanese people were angry and unhappy with their government’s handling of this disaster – vocal filmmaker’s on this subject include Sion Sono (Land Of Hope), Hideaki Anno (Shin Godzilla) and Ryuichi Hiroki (River). Whilst their misguided interference is a pertinent factor in the story told here, the script prefers to avoid levelling any accountability at one door.

Politicising a tragedy is not always a good idea but one would assume that Maekawa and director Setsuro Wakamatsu might have been bold enough to explore this further. The only reason I can muster is perhaps they thought it would sully the film’s purpose of recognising the titular heroes to stir up anti-government feelings on the anniversary of this disaster.

However, it does seem there was an intention to reference this by having the unnamed PM be a loud, obnoxious, kneejerk reacting oaf whose dialogue was apparently typed in uppercase. This comical turn is quite jarring in the midst of what is a tense recreation of a grave disaster, but Maekawa was at least smart enough to change the names of all the characters except for Yoshida, who passed away in 2013.

Outside interference from clueless board directors only concern with their image and of curse financial bottom line proves as much an obstacle as the rising threat of nuclear gas. With time running out and frustration rising, Yoshida defies many orders and sets out his own rescue plan that relies on the bravery of his staff. Isaki forms a “Suicide Squad” of volunteers comprised of older employees to enter the toxic reactors, the rationale being the younger ones need to continue their work in the future.

We can tell they were not doing this as an act of heroism or for recognition but out of duty for their job, their town, and their country’s safety. To that end, it is hard not to watch this and feel nothing but admiration and respect for their selflessness and valour, and Wakamatsu didn’t even need to overload this with sentimentality to engender this response. Similarly, the danger they are in is not exactly presented as a knife-edge drama, yet the risks are just as palpable thus carry their own suspense.

Something that is also underplayed is the occurrences outside of the danger zone with the evacuated civilians. Usually in disaster films there are subplots galore involving the families of those at the heart of the crisis – here, this is limited to just Isaki’s kin, mostly a dispute with his daughter Haruka (Riho Yoshioka) over her marrying an older divorcee single dad. Even when it looks like the end is nigh, people exchange their final message through pithy text messages, which is better than nothing, I suppose.

Depending on how you feel about it, the final act set in the aftermath of the events is a bit of a comedown – heavily mawkish and designed to end on an emotional high note, this clumsy coda detracts from the intensity effective drama that precedes it. There is quite the Hollywood ending feel to it which was mostly avoided prior to this, and the message that man underestimated the power of nature could have been imparted with less saccharine.

Ken Watanabe, back on home soil for once, is commanding as ever as Yoshida, his ire and frustration at the senseless red tape thrust at him relayed with genuine emotion. He has a strong support cast who bring equal commitment to their roles, the silly PM role being the lone exception. Also redundant was a thread involving the US army. Unless this was to appeal to Hollywood, its presence made no sense of had any impact on the story.

Fukushima 50 is a very well made film – great special effects, top notch acting, and as a tribute to the eponymous heroes, evocative and respectful. However, it could have been the prestige movie it wanted to be had it been brave enough to call out the Japanese government for their maladroit response to the disaster. Whilst being swept up in the moment of the gripping drama is one thing, making a statement in addressing official fault is sometimes required to tell a complete story.


Rating – *** ½

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