After the 2011 earthquake and tsunami in Japan, I wound up streaming NHK all day for a few days to find out what was happening at the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear plant. As if the sheer magnitude of the tsunami damage wasn’t bad enough, there was a much more ominous threat from radiation. With a tsunami, at least the threat was visible and potentially avoidable so long as someone made it to higher ground. Radiation is imperceptible, and it can reach people through air, water, and the food supply.
One character in the Japanese film Odayaka even says outright, “You cannot win against radiation.”
The invisible threat of annihilation is central to the movie’s subdued character studies. The larger tragedy of the earthquake and nuclear disaster open up this intimate exploration of two women, Saeko (Kiki Sugino) and Yukako (Yuki Shinohara). Both are neighbors but strangers, and both are at the verge of breaking down due to problems in their private lives.
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Odayaka (Odayaka na Nichijou | おだやかな日常)
Director: Nobuteru Uchida
Release Date: TBD
Disasters of different kinds can jar people into various forms of recognition. Watching tragedies unfold often makes people cling a little tighter to the people close to them, or it can cause some to bury old grudges. For Saeko’s husband, the earthquake reveals that he’s been living a lie. The same day of the quake, he confesses to Saeko that he’s in love with another woman, and it’s her face he saw and her well-being he worried for during the disaster. He immediately brings up divorce.
For Yukako, there’s a different sort of personal problem that’s revealed by the disaster, though it goes unstated throughout the majority of the film. It has something to do with her relationship to her own husband; something that happened in the past that neither have fully recovered from. The two of them feel like they’re holding some confession back when they’re in the same room. It’s a miserable sort of restraint.
This reticence to talk about and confront a major problem may be part of the Japanese culture. I’m reminded of an old Japanese proverb that seems like an undercurrent to the film: the nail that sticks up will be hammered down. The characters around Saeko and Yukako all talk about a unified Japan and carrying on as if nothing is different even though so much destruction has occurred. Rather than make a scene, maybe it’s better to just bear the pain. (Admittedly, while I watch a fair amount of Japanese films, I can’t claim to understand all the nuances of the culture.)
The threat of radiation becomes a real concern for both Saeko and Yukako. Saeko in particular is afraid for her young daughter. Even though they’ve never met before, the two women both begin wearing masks outdoors to protect themselves from harm, but this becomes a point of contention. Other people around them seem unconcerned about radiation poisoning and brand anyone wearing a mask as an alarmist who’s causing unnecessary worry. Saeko is bullied by other mothers at a nursery school for showing such outward concern and doubting the safety assurances of the Japanese government. Yukako, in the meantime, is seen as a psychotic for her constant concern about food safety and contaminated produce.
I wonder how common these reactions were in Japan following the quake, where the worries about radiation poisoning would be more legitimate, and perhaps also the worries about being too worried. There’s a critique here of people who are unable to express their deepest concerns and feel comfortable in the unquestioning mass (many of whom are also doubters and worriers). For all the gossip and teasing that Saeko gets, it seems like her concerns are shared by the same people who mock her.
It’s the odd way that conformity and the appearance of propriety can sometimes trump basic human empathy, even in times of great tragedy (both personal and national). The personal tragedy, more than just divorce in the present or an event in the past, is a sense of isolation. There’s a comfort in the mass because at least there’s a sense of community there. Those who stand outside the herd are alone, even if they’re with other people. In fact, they’re not just alone, they’re lonely, which is an important distinction to make. Even though Yukako’s in a seemingly good marriage, she feels the same sort of loneliness as a woman whose husband has left her.
The threat of radiation serves as a metaphor for these bigger personal concerns in the lives of both these women. Personal problems that are unresolved or pushed away have an ability to become worse with time. Perhaps the worry over radiation poisoning is a way to filter other concerns into something more immediate. For Saeko in particular, she doesn’t know how she’ll be able to raise her daughter on her own. Their lives, like the aftermath of the quake and the nuclear disaster, are subject to uncertainty — no one knows what happens next. Uncertainty about the future is the scariest sort of state.
The pull of Odayaka is seeing how these two women’s stories will eventually come together, and that’s where I think the film sort of wobbles despite the fine performance by Sugino and Shinohara. It feels like Saeko’s story has more to it in its immediate concerns than Yukako’s, whose own story isn’t given a full shape until the end of the film. In some ways, they feel like they’re two different movies with similar concerns that happen to be taking place next door.
But even though I’m not enthused by the story connections and eventual resolution of Odayaka, there’s something in its quiet and generally careful examination of worry in polite society that’s compelling. Not everything winds up being the same in the aftermath of a large-scale or personal disaster, nor is everything okay, but maybe there’s a bit of hope in knowing that strangers next door share the same worries. Nails may be hammered down, but usually there’s more than one sticking up.
[For tickets and more info on Odayaka, visit tribecafilm.com/festival.]