When we think of the dangers of nuclear power, one image comes to mind; the desolate wasteland that is Chernobyl. Nuclear energy can be a great source of power for civilizations, but all it takes is for one accident to nearly result in the end of the world as we know it. Many countries have to assess the risks of investing in nuclear energy development because if something goes wrong, then that’s it. Game over. Chernobyl is what happens when people with no idea of what they’re working with almost ruin the lives of millions. The story of the Fukushima Daiichi power plant in Japan is an entirely different story.
You may recall back in 2011 hearing about the Tohoku Earthquake, a 9.0 magnitude earthquake that rocked Japan, followed shortly by a tsunami to cause even more devastation. Right in the path of both natural disasters was the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power plant, which was on the verge of a total meltdown from both events. If the plant had fully undergone a nuclear meltdown it would have irradiated half of Japan. It’s the story of the right people being dealt an absolutely impossible hand to win with, and one that they don’t fully achieve victory with.
Fukushima 50 is the first major Japanese motion picture to depict exactly what happened over the course of those several days in March of 2011. While it is a dramatization, but one heavily based on facts and uncompromising in showing audiences just how close Japan came to becoming the largest nuclear disaster in history.
Director: Setsuro Wakamatsu
Release Date: March 6, 2020 (Japan), March 5, 2021 (Digital/VOD)
From the opening shots of the film, we’re thrown right into pure chaos as the workers of the Fukushima Daiichi Nuclear Power Plant try to wrap their heads around the chaos happening around them. First, they have to contend with an earthquake. Then they lose power, but their back-up generators are able to keep things running. Then the tsunami hits, causing their back-up generators to fail. And from there, the panic and fear amongst all of the employees, from managers to janitors, is all too real. Without the back-up generators, four of the six reactors are melting down. If they don’t stop the process, they’re all dead.
Like most major disaster movies, whether fictional or not, the film focuses on an exceptionally large cast, ranging from workers within the plant to politicians, corporate executives, and even the military reacting to the chaos from a distance. Most of these characters don’t leave much of an impact on the plot, but I’m almost thankful for their lack of presence. It would have felt disingenuous to take such a large-scale disaster and focus it around the story of just one man. Fukushima 50 does tiptoe into this territory with us primarily following two employees, Yoshida (Ken Watanabe) and Izaki (Koichi Saito), but that feels more like a necessity to get us into rooms with conversations that we normally wouldn’t be privy to.
The action jumps all throughout the plant with various teams outside the building trying to actively contain the destruction and evacuate civilians, managers arguing with corporations and politicians about the best course of action, and even a team attempting to physically enter the reactors to try and do something, anything, to save the country. Throughout it all, a looming sense of despair hangs over the proceedings. If you’re at all familiar with the actual event, you should know the end result, but the film always kept me engaged despite that.
Take when Reactor 1 melts down. The explosion comes right out of nowhere and rattles you to the core, wondering if any of the characters we’ve been following are alive and okay. I always knew that one of the reactors would undergo a meltdown, but I was still unprepared for when it actually occurred. Even then, it wouldn’t be the last time, but each explosion always delivered the same level of panic. When you can surprise an audience with information they already know, that’s the hallmark of an engaging movie.
Fukushima 50 feels like a marathon sprint, never giving its characters or the audience a chance to take stock and process what’s going on around them. In any other film, this would be a major criticism, but given the impending doom that permeates the film, it helps to heighten the tensions. Everything is building and building as characters scramble to find some way to stop the plant from being obliterated. You want to try and find some way to pause the action, but like in real life, there are no brakes. If anyone of them paused or stopped, then that would be the same as admitting defeat.
It’s not until the last twenty minutes of the film do we finally get our first moment to breathe. The tension subsides and instead we’re left with an aura of acceptance as the people who remain, the eponymous Fukushima 50, stick around to try one last attempt and fixing things, even though they know deep down there’s very little they can do. Bustling rooms are now barren with only a skeleton crew left to keep things going. Everyone else has evacuated. Only the suicide squad is left. Some call their loved ones, some sleep, some finally decide to eat, and some break down in tears. It’s one of the most well-earned silent moments I’ve seen in quite some time, giving off the impression that yes, this could be the end for them despite their best efforts.
The process of getting to the point though could definitely be overwhelming, and not in the emotional sense. All of the characters talk to each other like nuclear physicists, discussing pressure readings, nuclear radiation readings, tactics to mitigate the spread of the radiation both inside and outside of the plant, and it can easily fly over people’s heads. Normally there would be an audience surrogate character to explain what most of these key terms or ideas mean, and while the Prime Minister fills that role slightly in the few scenes that he’s in, we’re left to just processing the character’s reactions to see if the latest development in the crisis is a good one or a bad one.
But as is common with a lot of these large-scale disaster movies, there are a lot of subplots that don’t feel like they go anywhere. There are several scenes of United States diplomats and military leaders, gauging the situation and deciding how to proceeding. An ambassador calls Washington, a general reflects on his time growing up in Japan, and soldiers prepare to provide aid to the Japanese citizens. None of it ever amounts to anything outside of a line in the finale. Most of it could have been left on the cutting room floor and no one would have noticed. We even have a quick throwaway scene that confirms that without running water, the bathrooms are disgusting. I don’t know why we needed to know that, but it’s there.
But Fukushima 50 works primarily because it captures the tone and mood of being in such a disaster. It’s a kaleidoscope of panic as we’re left to wonder if the Fukushima 50 can truly stop the crisis. We know that they will, but as is always the case, it’s the journey and not the destination that matters. And for what it’s worth, that journey, while not exactly the easiest to follow at times, leaves one hell of a lasting impression on you.