A less hard-hitting follow-up to “Nuclear Nation” (2012), Atsushi Funahashi’s latest documentary dwells in the stasis of its dispossessed subjects — residents of Futaba, where the Fukushima meltdown took place on March 12, 2011. Yet while the sense of frustration and impotence weighs heavily on viewers, it doesn’t reduce the significance of “Nuclear Nation II, which forces one to acknowledge that the crisis remains unresolved, and chillingly hints at a new debacle in the form of nuclear contamination. Like its predecessor, the film is being distributed in France by Wide House and should enjoy a strong presence in Europe, particularly on smallscreens.
Four years since the nuclear fallout, Japanese are still grappling with, or evading its consequences. While documentaries and quasi-fictional films flood the scene, many of them adopt a scattershot style, and are either too elliptical or emotional in their account of events. Funahashi’s approach, though hardly subtle or groundbreaking, maintains a singular focus on the evacuees, whose injustices suffered at the hands of the government are related with blunt clarity. The onscreen text at film’s close says it all: “They continue to live as refugees in their own country.”
In the first docu, Funahashi recorded the resettlement of 1,415 Futaba residents at Kisai High School in Kazo City, a suburban town in Saitama prefecture, near Tokyo; at the sequel’s start, 628 are still stuck there. Meanwhile, an emergency housing complex has been erected in the Minamidai area of Iwaki, a city on the outskirts of Fukushima prefecture. Many of its inhabitants were staffers of the nuclear plants run by Tokyo Electric Company (TEPCO).
As the narrative shuttles between Kazo and Iwaki, highlighting very different sets of grievances, it exposes the arbitrary and inhumane way in which TEPCO and the government have handled the crisis. In Kazo, the mostly senior residents live like homeless people in partitioned spaces and have nothing to do. In Iwaki, families are squashed into cramped units with poor soundproofing, and need to grow their own produce as well as find salaried work. While their initial trauma may have receded, inertia and lethargy now prevail, as there are no signs that things will improve.
These unhappy experiences collide when the Iwaki residents gripe about the Kazo refugees getting more favorable subsidies, and pressure the Futaba district government to close down Kisai High School and relocate everyone to temporary housing units like theirs. While most other films on Fukushima depict survivors as unfortunate victims, “Nuclear Nation II” reveals other social dynamics, including bitterness, infighting and tangled land disputes — a disheartening sign of how their sense of solidarity and shared roots have been destroyed.
The divisiveness extends to the political arena, as in the attempted impeachment of Futaba mayor Katsutaka Idokawa by the town council, resulting in his resignation. Anyone who recalls this outspoken and tenacious figure from the first film, in which he humbly apologized for his faults and doggedly lobbied the government for compensation, will feel demoralized by his undignified exit here. Bearing out Idokawa’s reflection that “a mayor doesn’t have much power, really” is the new mayor, Shiro Izawa, who obviously cares but appears equally helpless at endless conferences and debates with higher-ups. At one such press conference, the camera zooms in at a timely moment to catch Izawa break down in tears.
The narration is less rambling but also less immediate than it was in the previous film, and sometimes myopically focused on the subjects’ monotonous routines. Fortunately, a few spirited interviewees add some emotional heft, such as a couple who are poignantly attached to their ancestral estate, right down to every century-old tree.
Following up on issues and conditions that have remained unresolved since “Nuclear Nation,” the sequel also highlights new problems, from land-exchange policies that grossly devalue the owners’ properties, to a new central government plan to turn Fukushima into a storage area for nuclear waste. Though this issue is only raised toward the end, it has serious implications, as the toxic practice will likely extend to other regions in Japan. One hopes that this, together with the continuing saga of Futaba’s townsfolk, will be explored in a third installment. As former Daiichi plant technician Hiroyuki Kawano explains, “It’s a pretty bad legacy,” as no technology has yet been invented to clean out the debris in the reactors or stop the leaking.
The filmmakers had more than two years to work on “Nuclear Nation II,” and it’s paid off: Tech credits are more polished, and Funahashi’s editing flows with a more consistent rhythm. Minimalist theme music at the end (composed by Ryuichi Sakamoto) evokes feelings of desperation and turmoil with impressionistic piano notes and a plaintive flute score.