Funahashi, Atsushi. 2012. Nuclear Nation. Documentary film.
“Atomic energy makes our town and society prosperous,” reads a sign over a prominent archway in the small town of Futaba, Fukushima. The camera pans over a grey landscape of rubble, empty public buildings, and dozens of cows lying deceased and mummified in barn stalls. Such scenes in Nuclear Nation render the declared benevolence of atomic energy painfully ironic. They also make clear director Atsushi Funahashi’s intent: to situate Japan’s present nuclear disaster within the context of Japan’s promising nuclear past.
Funahashi explores Japan’s changing relationship with nuclear energy solely through the eyes of Futaba residents. As the mayor of the town shows the camera old photographs, we learn that Futaba welcomed Tokyo Electric Power Company (TEPCO) and its nuclear energy plans in the 1960s. With a nuclear plant, explains the mayor, came generous government subsidies, and Futaba quickly morphed from a small farming village to a modern city supported by a major industry. However, the value of the plants quickly depreciated and Futaba was on the verge of bankruptcy. In the 1990s the town accepted two new plants and TEPCO’s promises of payment—the latter of which never materialized—in an effort to pull itself out of debt. This narrative of the past, which brings us up to the 2011 disaster, sheds light on the complicated but intricate relationship that Futaba’s people and local government, like other small nuclear towns, have had with the nuclear energy industry and its leading power companies.
Funahashi documents a radically changed attitude toward nuclear energy in a post-3/11 world by following the people of Futaba for a year, beginning in the immediate aftermath of the disaster. His focus on one town’s experience is a strength of the film, for it allows Funahashi to explore the effects of the Fukushima Daiichi disaster on both a community and an individual level. He highlights a handful of residents, weaving their individual stories together as they experience a year of unfamiliarity, grief, anger, and, surprisingly, optimism and acceptance. Forced to evacuate their town and seek refuge in a high school, more than a thousand residents must sleep in the school’s gymnasium and eat nothing but bento. The television seems to always be on and tuned into a station playing national news about the disaster, none of which mentions Futaba. The residents later stage a protest against the Liberal Democratic Party and TEPCO for their general negligence. Throughout all of this Funahashi records incredible interviews; the residents candidly express their past reliance on nuclear power and present frustration with the industry, government, and options for the future—none of which fulfill the residents’ desire to return to their “homeland.”
This narrative allows Nuclear Nation to address many questions, but perhaps most significant is the question of when disaster begins and ends. By taking us back in time, Funahashi places a potential starting point for Fukushima at the arrival of nuclear power in the region forty years ago. His view of an ending point is a little less clear; he documents the disaster for a year but leaves the residents’ stories open-ended and their new lives in new places unsettled. Nevertheless, by the end of the film it becomes clear that Nuclear Nation is not a story about triumphing over disaster—that is, not a story with a happy ending; rather, it is a story about the break-up of a community and the making of an environmental ghost town. For educators and students who wish to learn about the aftermath of Fukushima, about Japan’s forty-year history with nuclear energy, and about the nature of disaster more generally, Nuclear Nation is an excellent choice.
-Ashanti Shih, Yale University