It’s been more than nine years since the world bore witness to the devastation at the Fukushima Daiichi Nuclear Power Plant. For posterity, the story of the people who stayed on site became the subject of Ryusho Kadota’s own non-fiction own novel, “On the Brink: The Inside Story of Fukushima Daiichi”, published originally in 2012 prior to English translations made available thereafter.
That book now takes on new life in Fukushima 50, the latest film from Aircraft Carrier Ibuki and Snow On The Blades helmer Setsuro Wakamatsu, and screenwriter Youichi Maekawa who makes the transition here from television for his first-ever feature screenplay. It is the first film made that directly depicts the events of March 11, 2011, and the hours that followed as a team of fifty people worked to maintain the cooling systems in all four reactor buildings, all while mitigating with bureaucratic red tape from the Tokyo Electric Power head office.
Caught at the center of the calamity are Operations Shift Manager Toshio Izaki (Koichi Sato), responsible for the hands-on engineering and management of the reactor unit buildings, and Masao Yoshida (Ken Watanabe), the plant’s General Manager. What follows is a harrowing story of courage in a time of crisis, when a magnitude 9.0 earthquake strikes off the coast of the plant, resulting in a 32-foot tsunami that would smother the plant, causing an electrical black out.
While Yoshida works to investigate the conditions of the buildings and the cause for all the destruction, he’s forced to tread between the bureaucratic red tape of his TEPCO higher ups, and the desperate search for solutions as he and Izaki toil away at managing the reactors. As the towers face core meltdown, the two will have to make critical moment-to-moment decisions that will involve the tenacity and will of the engineers on site, in order to keep the reactors cooled down as stable as possible, facing insurmountable odds in order to prevent a total disaster that could affect all of Japan for future generations.
Fukushima 50 is a huge undertaking with lots of extras and moving pieces, and so you have to give it to Wakamatsu and Maekawa for crafting such a cohesive and interwoven tale. The upkeep and pace of the story is as intense as it gets, illustrating the network of communication between all the various departments of the plant, all while chiming in with frequent, sweeping shots of the plant. The devastation looks like a proper mix of CG and practical effects which still look and feel authentic, and less so as if you’re looking at obvious miniatures in a studio setting.
The film has quite the ensemble in its cast, and all with specific roles to play as the story unfolds. Equally, impressive is how Sato and Watanabe – back together since Unforgiven – work so well together, even as most of their screentime is spent in different rooms, communicating long distance and carrying the story accordingly. Watanabe takes absolute charge as the underdog employee in Fukushima 50 as Yoshida, a man clearly fed up from being inundated with politics during such a crisis. He’s a resolute and apt leader who cares about solutions as much as the next employee, and when he’s met with hurdles of different jumps, sometimes he’ll let off some steam and kick a trash can if need be. At one point, the room completely stops and stares as he sits on the floor, facing his desk underneath with his eyes closed in a meditative state.
In the early hours of the incident, he learns that he and Izaki are like-minds in their efforts. Consistency is still a bit dodgy with all the goings on, but the communication, the necessity thereof in the course of teamwork, never flounders. This does eventually come into question when one of engineers questions Izaki about why it is they’re even staying in the facility, with what little they can do as the reactors still bare the imminent threat of combusting from hydrogen build-up, and it’s essentially in Izaki’s hands to help maintain morale among his men.
Beyond the interpersonal stories, friendships and affiliations with the plant’s workers, the film also delves a little more into Izaki’s personal life as the town of nearby Tomioka evacuates its residents, including Izaki’s family. By the start of the film, he’s already an impasse with his daughter over their own differences, prefacing the kind of foreshadowing that occurs when the protagonist of a disaster film is at the frontlines of a major crisis and there’s almost always the chance of inevitable demise.
Par for the course just as well with films involving corporate recalcitrance in the midst of national crisis are usual suits who take charge of a situation with no real plan in place except to give orders and expect results. They’re not inherently malevolent by any means, but their underserved positions of authority are more than motivating for the kind of dissent and volatility that plays out. You’ll see these kinds of scenes involving Yoshida, who apparently ran out of words during one of his exchanges with TEPCO head Hideki Onodera (Eisuke Sasai), resulting in a rather hilarious, posterior gesture. The film’s other TEPCO higher-up, Goro Takemaru (Yasunori Danta), also has to deal with the frustration from Japan’s Prime Minister (Shiro Sano) whose own engagement in the plant’s crisis management, though well intended, falls nothing short of infringing for Yoshida, who is clearly nearing the end of his rope for lack of personal protective gear as workers struggle with dwindling equipment, manpower and space.
Takemaru also bares the brunt of scrutiny when a local journalist (Dankan) protrudes from a sea of reporters and their flashing cameras, and questions him about the future of Fukushima Prefecture. It’s one of the more emotive, compelling moments of the film that puts Takemaru on the spot, underscoring the often diar need for accountability from corporate lemmings pretending to have all the answers, in face of a thousands of people who are afraid for the future and may possibly have no home to go to.
Firing on all cylinders from the first gripping seven minutes until the end, and with Sato and Watanabe steering the plot, Fukushima 50 is as much of a tale of hope and courage through adversity, as it is an essay on human error in the face of mother nature. The film delivers a palpable, poignant and even consequential story that pays proper tribute to the people on the ground, including Yoshida who passed away from esophageal cancer in July 2013, just over two years since the fateful incident at Fukushima Daiichi. There may be more films made about this particular moment in history, or stories with echoes pertinent to it, but as far as observing a well-crafted, explosive and moving dramatization told on an epic scale with gravitas and heart, Fukushima 50 is a fine place to start.