By Eija Niskanen.
Sion Sono, Japanese cinema’s enfant terrible, has delved into the topic of the 2011 Northern Japan 3/11 triple disaster of earthquake, tsunami and nuclear power plant accident in two of his recent films, Himizu (2011) and Land of Hope/Kibo no kuni. Himizu, based on a manga by Minoru Furuya, does not originally have anything to do with tsunami or nuclear radiation, but once 3/11 happened, the director changed the script to include 3/11. After Himizu, Sono continued with the theme. In Land of Hope, however, he does not recreate the events but draws a parallel future, in which the same events are repeated a few years from now.
In a nearby future in 20XX, as the beginning title tells us, in the Nagashima prefecture, a massive earthquake takes place. Two neighbor families wait for the electricity to switch back on. Suddenly, the self-defense forces arrive, dressed in protective radiation suits, declaring that the nearby Nagashima Dai-ichi nuclear power plant is in trouble. They draw the 20 km evacuation line right through one family’s garden, with their neighbors forced to leave immediately, while the other side is considered “safe”. The events unfold in a fictional place called Nagashima, which is a combination of the three Japanese places historically exposed to radiation: Nagasaki, Hiroshima and Fukushima. The main family is based on a real Fukushima family, who, similarly to the Onos of the film, had the 20 km evacuation zone line drawn through their garden. In the film, the Ono family members are farmers, with dairy cows in their barn. The choice of their occupation underlines the impossibility of continuing any kind of decent living after the nuclear accident, as the family is rooted in the ground through their occupation. This accident splits the family: son Yoichi and her wife Izumi, who is pregnant, move to a nearby town, which still has some radiation, though not as strong as on the farm. The son finds a job at a construction site, while Izumi grows worried about the effects of radiation to her unborn child. Izumi is a typical Sono film over-determined female character: obsessed with the radiation to the extreme, she covers her and Yoichi’s apartment completely in plastic, seals the windows and goes outside only in protective suit, to face bullying from her neighbors. In the end, she persuades Yoichi for a move further away for Nagashima prefecture.
Meanwhile, the neighbor’s Suzuki couple has evacuated, leaving their dog to be fed by the older Ono couple. Another couple, Mitsuru and Yoko, frequently returns to the village to search for for Yoko’s missing parents in the ruins. Yasuhiko’s worries are both with his cows and his wife Chieko. Chieko suffers from old-age dementia, hence making it impossible for Yasuhiko to consider moving with her elsewhere. In the end, Yasuhiko makes a tragic decision: he takes his hunting rifle, kills all the cows whose milk is no longer good for sale, lets the neighbor’s dog free, and shoots Chieko and himself.
The film is left with two parallel ending scenes: Mitsuru and Yoko are walking slowly, one step at a time in the snow by the sea. The director has explained how this scene reflects his criticism over the fast post-war development of Japan—the nuclear accident is the logical ending of this thinking. “My point with the characters walking one step by one step is my wish for the Japanese people to go forward slowly,” Sion claimed¹. The last shot of this scene is of two dogs, one of which is the Suzukis’ dog (a scene familiar in Fukushima, where left-behind dogs roam the streets). The last, seemingly hopeful scene soon turns dark as well: Yoichi and Izumi, with their newborn child, are driving away from the radiation-contaminated region. They stop by the sea and sit on the beach, with the child roaming on the ground. Suddenly, a Geiger counter sound is heard from Yoichi’s bag: the counter gives a high radiation reading. There is nowhere in Japan to escape.
The fictional Nagashima has striking similarities to Fukushima: the main characters’ home village has the similar “bright future in the atomic village” gate sign that Futaba, Fukushima, the home of Fukushima Dai-ichi nuclear power plant, has. The arbitrary 20 km no-go zone is similar to Fukushima, with not much relation to the actual radiation situation. Sono underlines the dividing line by having a visual fence built through the landscape—in reality, there is no wall at the Fukushima 20 km line, just police roadblocks. Sion Sono also intentionally shot some scenes in Fukushima, but many of the other scens are filmed in locations all around Japan, including several rural areas. A farm in Fukaya—a small town outside of Tokyo (which, thanks to the efforts of the local film commission, has been used as a filming location for several Japanese films requiring traditional houses)—was the central shooting location. Nagashima is anywhere and everywhere in Japan. Veteran actor Isao Natsuyagi, playing the Ono household head, offers a powerful performance in one of his last films before he passed away. Land of Hope, in its seriousness, is very different from the usual quirky Sono oeuvre, and might leave those waiting for another Sono extravaganza disappointed. It is, however, a very important comment on the nuclear crisis which is still going on in Fukushima.
Eija Niskanen is a researcher of Japanese film and animation at the University of Helsinki. She also acts as Programming Director of the Helsinki Cine Asia Film Festival and Coordinator of Film Events and Production between Finland and Japan.
Land of Hope was released on DVD and Blu-ray by Third Window Films. Extras include a making of film, with interesting shots of the film crew visiting the Fukushima evacuated area and the family who served as a model for the Ono family, as well as Sono’s thoughts on the necessity to shoot this topic.
¹Ki, Mun. “Q&A with Sion Sono (Busan International Film Festival).” AsianWiki. 4 June 2013. Web. 4 Oct. 2014.