The first fully fictional screen depiction of Japan in the aftermath of the Fukushima nuclear disaster, Sion Sono’s “The Land of Hope” courageously cuts through the respectful distance observed by most Nipponese documentarians with this subjective, personal focus on two families. Notwithstanding Sono’s penchant for overwriting dialogue and overstating metaphors, the account feels poignantly truthful. Akin in mood to the helmer-scribe’s elegiac father-son drama “Be Sure to Share,” the pic is a clean break from his sex-and-slasher films, though a sobering dystopian vision is expressed in odd flights of fantasy. Fest play aside, Metropolitan Film’s acquisition springs hope in niche Euro theaters.The Onos and Suzukis are neighbors who run dairy and produce farms, respectively, in the backwater town of Oba in fictional Nagashima prefecture. Their routine lives are short-circuited by a nuclear meltdown triggered by an earthquake. The Suzukis, father Ken (Denden, from Sono’s “Cold Fish”), mother Meiko (Mariko Tsutsui), son Mitsuru (Yutaka Shimizu) and his g.f. Yoko (Hikari Kajiwara) are abruptly evacuated to a shelter. But, in a scene exposing the government’s arbitrary policies, the Onos are left alone because their home lies inches outside the danger-zone’s 20-kilometer radius. Ono senior Yasuhiko (action star Isao Natsuyagi) decides to stay put with his dementia-afflicted wife Chieko (Naoko Otani), but practically evicts his son Yoichi (Jun Murakami) and daughter-in-law Izumi (Megumi Kagurazaka) for their own safety. Meanwhile, Mitsuru and Yoko, who lost her parents to the tsunami, sneak back into no man’s land. Conversely, Izumi and Yoichi, who are expecting a baby, decide to move as far away as possible. Their defiance and will to survive gives the film its glimmer of hope. Although the scenario is ostensibly a post-Fukushima future, in the light of the reactivation of Oi’s nuclear reactor in July, those who keep abreast of news or have seen documentaries about 3/11 will be hard-pressed not to recognize its chilling realism. Nor will they miss the allegorical import of a city named as a composite of Nagasaki and Hiroshima. Controversial scenes of government attempts to encourage denial of events, as well as citizen discrimination against disaster victims, also will shake up local auds. At heart, however, the film is a traditional affirmation of family ties, and both story and camera stay close to the eight protags’ plight, tracing how two generations who normally bury their affection beneath curt, offhand conversations, express unexpected loyalty and altruism. The scene in which Izumi bids farewell to her in-laws sparks associations with “The Ballad of Narayama,” lending the film gravitas and pathos. The pic is undercut, however, by Sono’s predilection for portentous symbolism. Moreover, while the thesps, especially the proud and passionate Natsuyagi, deliver sympathetic perfs, they occasionally fly into hysterics. The low-key, documentary-style lensing is transcended by shots of Fukushima evoking a snow-blanketed wasteland of poetic beauty. Throbbing sound effects resembling hurricanes, rumbling machines and pounding hearts combine with Mahler’s stormy Symphony No. 10 to create the tension of a horror film. Other tech credits are pro.
A Bitters End (in Japan)/Metropolitan Film (in France) release of a Land of Hope Film Partners (Dongyu Club, Bitters End, Pictures Dept.) presentation and production in association with Third Window Films, Joint Entertainment Intl. (International sales: Dongyu Club, Pictures Dept., Tokyo.) Produced by Mizue Kunizane, Yuji Sadai, Yuko Shiomaki. Co-producers, Adam Torel, James Liu. Directed, written by Sion Sono.
Camera (color/B&W, HD, widescreen), Shigenori Miki; editor, Junichi Ito; production designer, Shinichi Matsuzuka; set decorator, Akira Ishige; costume designers, Kenji Kawazaki, Masato Arai; sound (Dolby Digital), Hajime Komiya; supervising sound editor, Akira Fukada; line producer, Go Suzuki. Reviewed at Toronto Film Festival (Contemporary World Cinema), Sept. 7, 2012. Running time: 134 MIN.
Isao Natsuyagi, Naoko Otani, Jun Murakami, Megumi Kagurazaka, Yutaka Shimizu, Hikari Kajiwara, Mariko Tsutsui, Denden. (Japanese dialogue)