"Atomic energy makes our town and society prosperous," reads a sign photographed by filmmaker Atsushi Funahashi for Nuclear Nation. By the time he shows this small-town civic motto, the irony is unmistakable: Japan's nuclear-power industry may have enriched society, but it has left this particular city desolate.
The place in question is Futaba, which borders the Fukushima Daiichi nuke plant. Funahashi shows Futaba mostly in exile; after four of the six reactors failed on March 12, 2011, the town's residents were evacuated. As of April 2011, 1,415 of them were living in an abandoned high school in Saitama, the prefecture that holds much of Tokyo's northern sprawl.
Over the nine months the movie chronicles, about half the refugees leave the school building. Many return to the Fukushima area, but none to Futaba, which is still radioactive and officially off-limits. When a bus trip is organized so former residents can retrieve treasured belongings — for one, that means Mad Max and Planet of the Apes DVDs — the visitors are allowed only two hours within the hot zone.
Despite its title, the film spends little time analyzing Japan's macro issues as a "nuclear nation"; the director, who also served as editor and main cinematographer, sticks with the Futaba refugees. His approach is direct, intimate yet respectful, and sometimes as mournful as the stark piano-and-flute score. Both movie and music proceed slowly, although probably faster than in the original version, which was nearly an hour longer.
The principal characters include Mayor Katsutaka Idogawa and a father-son team, Ichiro and Yuiichi Nakai, who use their two hours in Futaba to pray for the soul of the wife and mother who died in the aftermath of the earthquake, tsunami and nuke-plant hydrogen explosions.
When the movie leaves the Saitama shelter, it's usually to follow the mayor or other residents on a mission. Some of them stage a march in Tokyo, protesting Futaba's abandonment. There, in a classic clueless-politician moment, one elected representative bows solemnly to a demonstrator and asks, "Where are you from?"
Sometimes, though, the nation comes to the evacuees. The emperor and empress pay a visit, and a military band arrives to perform sad enka ballads and a tune that vows, "We love our Fukushima home." There are also letters and promises of compensation from the national government and the Tokyo Electric Power Co., which some find disappointing. "It would have been nice to receive something more heartfelt," remarks a shelter resident.
Each new reactor brought an influx of cash, Idogawa explains, but only temporarily. After all the construction, Futaba was still one of the 10 poorest towns in the country. That's why the mayor endorsed two more reactors, whose construction had been scheduled to begin just a month after the disaster.
By mid-2011, the mayor had changed his mind about nuclear power — not that it mattered much. He still had an office, but it was in a high school some 150 miles away from a town he couldn't even visit.
Idogawa and the Nakais aren't the documentary's only mavericks. There's also farmer Masami Yoshizawa, who insists on feeding and watering his cattle, even though the animals are too radioactive to have any economic value.
"I'm committed to letting these cows live," says Yoshizawa. That sentiment, given the circumstances, seems rather more inspiring than "Atomic energy makes our town and society prosperous."