The devastating plight of Fukushima citizens after the nuclear fallout gets short shrift in Nao Kubota’s ho-hum “Homeland,” which belittles the trauma of evacuees and dodges issues of gross government/corporate injustice in favor of a meek, generic domestic drama. Aping a long line of more illustrious helmers who contributed to the quintessentially Japanese shomingeki genre highlighting ordinary families, Kubota mistakes the prosaic for the universal, wasting his cast’s acting chops on humdrum activity and bland dialogue. The result is a narrative that perversely refuses to engage on a dramatic or emotional level, or to look its unavoidable political context in the eye. With big names like Hirokazu Kore-eda and Nobuhiro Suwa credited for “support,” “Homeland” could make it into festival sidebars.
Having left Fukushima for Tokyo as a teenager and broken off all contact with his relations since, Jiro Sawada (Kenichi Matsuyama) returns to the now-evacuated zone in 2011 to cultivate rice seedbeds for the family garden. He crosses paths first with family acquaintance Nobuaki Iijima (Ken Mitsuishi), whose story arc resurfaces out of the blue much later, then with Tadashi Kitamura (Takashi Yamanaka), a grade-school classmate he barely recognizes. The two hang out, sharing their guilt over not having been there when the disaster happened. Their meandering conversations aren’t enhanced by the backdrops, which are mostly limited to Jiro’s gloomy living room or the same patch of farmland.
Somewhere outside the lockdown zone, Jiro’s elder half-brother, Soichi (Seiyo Uchino), is stewing in cramped temporary housing with his wife Misa (Sakura Ando), moppet Naho (Misora Shimura) and stepmother Tomiko (Yuko Tanaka). Jobless, he loiters around the “entertainment” district where Misa works, fretting over her sleeping with clients, and worrying that Naho will be bullied if they relocate to another region. Meanwhile, Tomiko is losing her marbles, trapped in her memories of her husband, Senzo (Renji Ishibashi). Eventually the brothers are forced to retrace what led Jiro to leave home and the influence their father had on them. What could have built to a moving climax of confrontation and reconciliation instead fizzles out in a limp ending.
The fundamental theme here is the attachment of country folk to their ancestral land, most strongly voiced by Jiro, who waxes lyrical about how “the paddy fields, the mountains, the cows … called out to me.” But what greets him instead are radiation, toxic soil and contaminated livestock. Yet by sentimentalizing Jiro and the other characters’ decision to stay in no man’s land, the film downplays the danger involved, a reprehensible stance; it’s especially disappointing that, after despite some gestures of protest in the earlier scenes, the protags finally become as docile as the radiated cows left to roam and starve.
For three decades, Kubota has made documentaries for TV, which may have influenced his literal-minded approach to storytelling. Audiences are treated to long, numbing sequences of rural labor and rice cooking; even when something eventful happens, every shot is held several beats too long. Although the helmer aims to depict the ordeals of Fukushima’s citizens, he seems so intent on portraying an “ordinary” family that their problems override larger issues such as victims’ compensation and cleanup of toxic waste, which only get passing references here.
Most of the actors deliver credible performances, but Kubota’s excessive restraint limit their expressiveness. The camera techniques employed by d.p. Yoko Itakura lack variation, while music, image texture and mise-en-scene all border on flat and toneless. The film’s original title means “the way home.”