Features Live Action Movies

Fukushima 50

Director – Setsuro Wakamatsu – 2020 – Japan – Cert. 12 – 122m


Historically-based, disaster movie cum drama in which workers struggle to limit the considerable damage to a nuclear power plant hit by an earthquake then a tsunami – on VoD from Monday, March 8th

March 11th, 2011. A powerful earthquake followed by a tsunami hit Japan. Situated near the epicentre of the earthquake on the coast where the tsunami hits is a nuclear power plant. The resultant nuclear disaster threatens to decimate Japan. Coming in at slightly over 9.0, it remains the most powerful earthquake the country has ever experienced.

The above is history. The title Fukushima 50 is the name given to from the crew of the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power plant who at considerable cost to their own health stayed at the plant to limit the damage as much as they could and prevent an undoubtedly appalling situation becoming far worse.

To anyone not well-versed in the specific technical minutiae of how a nuclear power plant works (i.e. most of us) much of what happens in the film is bewildering. Not that it really matters, frankly, because if someone looks at a gauge, reads off a number in units of which you’ve never heard and exclaims that they’ve got to get the number down, you have a pretty good idea what’s going on.

While it’s a highly effective and gripping movie with energy and pace which is what’s needed, director Wakamatsu isn’t good at explaining his figures: witness the periodic titles explaining the time elapsed since the earthquake at various points in the film… the fact that the count in hours and minutes are prefaced every time with the original date makes the intermittent captions hard to follow until you realise how they’re being done.

The compelling if not always comprehensible narrative lurches from one crisis to another. First up is the earthquake warning with workers told to evacuate Unit 4 immediately. Plant manager Masao Yoshida (Ken Watanabe) then tells his Operations Manager Toshio Izaki (Koichi Sato) that there’s a mega-tsunami warning. The earth undersea heats and fissures and a giant wave comes in from the sea and swaps the plant’s coastal buildings. Men outside who can see what’s happening run uphill to escape, others trapped inside buildings recoil at water gushing in through their only possible way out.

Then there’s a blackout and a lot of script about “invoking article 10” and time wasted whilst the hapless, Tokyo-based company director tries to take charge and hold off Yoshida from making the decisions and taking the actions he clearly needs to make. Eventually, Yoshida simply ignores him and does what needs to be done. If the film is not kind to corporate bureaucracy, it’s even less charitable to the Japanese PM who, hearing the news and sensing the need to be seen doing something, insists on flying in to visit that the plant thereby further delaying various dangerous actions that need to be taken which Yoshida won’t take while he’s at the site as they would endanger the PM’s life.

Data and figures may not be his strong point, but director Wakamatsu is much better at conjuring images, real or reported – point of view shots of crew wearing masks inside darkened interiors are bisected in their bottom half by the bridge of the nose in the bottom half of the image, a worker sent in to check on various dials or measuring implements has a series of numbers written in felt tip on one of his protective clothing gloves, power cables which prove too heavy for workers to lift.

Parts of the plant interior prove so unbearably hot (900°) that a boot momentarily sticks to a piece of metal railing while workers sent in not only can’t reach the parts of the plant they need to reach but also start pulling off their radiation suits in an attempt to cool down.

Various pipes and buildings which we are told could burst at any time, do so. Hefty chunks of exploded masonry reign down on workers trying to feed water into the plant to cool it down.

The heroism and patriotism of those at the plant determined to prevent the worst coming to pass contrast markedly with the stupidity of their corporate masters and elected representatives. As a disaster movie, it’s highly effective and conveys a real sense of a group of workers struggling their utmost to battle the inevitable and being delighted when, inexplicably, something works and saves the day.

The whole thing is very Japanese with much shouting, apologising and bowing from all concerned and a coda involving cherry blossoms and a memorial speech by Izaki in praise of his late boss, the only real life person from the plant represented here by their actual name, who died of cancer in 2013. It’s also a very loud warning to those who believe nuclear energy is to be embraced when, in this writer’s view, it’s a disaster waiting to happen.

Fukushima 50 is out on VoD in the UK from Monday, March 8th.


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