“Odayaka” means “calm and tranquil” in Japanese, but this ironically titled drama, exposing controversial reactions to the Fukushima nuclear fallout, is anything but. Indie helmer Nobuteru Uchida vents his frustration, in sarcastic, hectoring tones, with many Japanese citizens’ ostrich-like attitude toward the crisis, describing civilian backlash against individuals who express deep anxiety about radiation. Just as the pic calls for extreme measures in extreme times, Uchida’s provocative stance will cause tremors upon its December local release. The Japan-U.S. co-production has been swamped with fest engagements prior to a planned Stateside bow.
On the day of the 3/11 earthquake, Saeko (Kiki Sugino) is left alone in her Tokyo apartment with young daughter Kiyomi (Ami Watanabe). Her parents, based in Tohoku, near the disaster area, are out of reach. When her husband, Noboru (Yu Koyanagi), returns home, it’s only to inform her that he’s divorcing her for another woman. Suddenly left stranded, Saeko develops major anxiety over Kiyomi’s well-being, from the safety of her school lunches to the cesium levels in her kindergarten playground. However, the teachers just toe the government line, while other tots’ parents accuse her of being paranoid and generating mass panic.
Incidentally, Saeko’s next-door neighbor, Yukako (Yukiko Shinohara), undergoes a similar psychological meltdown. She pleads with her husband (Takeshi Yamamoto) to get a job transfer to western Japan, but his boss proves unaccommodating. The two women cross paths when Saeko makes a drastic decision; as the main protags find modest hope through mutual understanding and support, the film reaches a surprisingly moving conclusion after a series of highly charged confrontations.
Uchida’s insight into and upfront documentation of the pain and peculiar mindset of psychologically unhinged characters, as seen in his most recent works, “Pictorial Letters” and “Love Addiction,” serve him well in evoking the stress and confusion felt by Saeko and Yukako. In addition to outlining the unsettling disruptions of daily life, he achieves a delicate ambivalence in characterization, offsetting their ability to think and act independently with signs of self-centeredness and neurosis.
By featuring peripheral characters who espouse twisted logic, such as a mother who accuses Saeko of having no compassion for the earthquake victims because she makes Kiyomi wear a mask, Uchida critiques the Japanese group mentality, the native tendency to stifle dissent for fear of rocking the boat. A scene in which the car of a former worker (Susumu Terajima, in a forceful cameo) at a Fukushima nuclear reactor gets vandalized is arguably the most in-your-face depiction, in any Japanese film, of discrimination against 3/11 victims.
The dogged focus on a few protags demands charismatic perfs, but the two male thesps verge on dull, whereas Sugino and Shinohara eventually run out of steam after their passionate emotions in the film’s first half. Though her role is brief, Makiko Watanabe (a regular in pics by Sion Sono and Masahiro Kobayashi) steals the show as a mother who bullies Saeko.
The minuscule budget is reflected in the spartan tech package, handheld cinematography and constricted mise-en-scene, consisting of home, school and neighborhood stores. With its simple storyline and structure, the film is thematically engaging but aesthetically a tad monotonous for its running time.