Wednesday 10 March 2021

Venting: "Fukushima 50"

There is no disaster the cinema won't replay; the only question is how much schlock gets introduced during the production process. Fukushima 50 is the Japanese film industry earnestly dramatising the earthquake-tsunami one-two that left the titular nuclear power plant such a liability ten years ago this very week, and to their credit, no-one's hanging around. The water hits in the first ten minutes, cueing panic among the assembled button-pushers, superior model work from the VFX team, and the inevitable - but still perversely thrilling - sight of behelmeted worker ants gazing up at a skyscraper-high wall of H2O ("Tsunami! Run!"). Thereafter, Setsurō Wakamatsu's film enters into sober procedural mode. Though there's a familiarly schmaltzy sideplot involving the plant workers' families, obliged to gather up their belongings and hustle quicksmart out of the potential blast zone, the primary focus is on the team of pocketguarded shirtsleeves - the 50 of the title, headed by Ken Watanabe's sensible, decent, often agonised Yoshida - who stayed behind in the control centre and attempted, amid the jolting aftershocks, to contain any radiation and thereby restore national honour. As in its Western soulmate, 2016's Deepwater Horizon, the emphasis is firmly on cleaning up; its presiding spirit is less Ishirō Honda than Marie Kondo.

Plainly, it's the kind of project that could only have been attempted at some remove, once all the details had emerged, the stories had been squared, and the worst of the loss and grief worked through. A hymn to collective coolheadedness, Fukushima 50 demonstrates very little of that ragged emotion that made Sion Sono's Himizu, filmed in the immediate aftermath of the tsunami and released the same year, so compelling. With the story now deemed fair game, Wakamatsu and team set about retelling it with what we might call a respectful gusto: the performance style will come as a surprise to anybody drawn here after the doomy realism of HBO's Chernobyl. We get a lot of interbureau shouting - pitched at least ten decibels above the average, some reflection of the heightened circumstances - cut with more hushed derring-do in the plant's bowels, as teams of nervy volunteers are sent in to vent the reactor. (The phrase "suicide squad" is here returned to its radioactive origins.) Dramatically, we're never too far from Disaster Movie 101: Watanabe resumes his smoking habit when the outcome looks especially bleak, the explosions line up perfectly with the act breaks, and there's an unapologetically sentimental homestretch involving cherry blossoms (official tree of renewal) and a rendition of "Danny Boy". Semi-intriguing regional variations include a plant worker drifting off inside his hazmat suit and dreaming of the plant's genesis, and a pretty unflattering depiction of outgoing PM Naoto Kan (by Shirō Sano) as a ranting crank who choppers on site just to get in everybody's way. Moderate competency porn, all told, and a stark reminder that nuclear power - like the most fissile boyfriend or girlfriend you've ever had - is decidedly high maintenance. The current UK government - whose own baseline of competency remains, let's say, questionable - has been advocating for only more of it, you know.

Fukushima 50 is now available to rent via Prime Video and Altitude Film.

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