Incredibly it’s been 10 years since this specific earthquake and tsunami hit Japan and, in this case, the Fukushima Nuclear facility with nearly wide-ranging catastrophic outcomes. On 11th March 2011, the 9.0 magnitude earthquake caused waves so high that they flooded the power plant, which in turn caused a power outage and thus the cooling systems failed. With no electricity to cool the reactors that were rapidly heating up, workers from the plant remained and took on manual procedures to stop the entire place from exploding, and genuinely risked their lives to save others.
Based on the book by Ryusho Kadota, On the Brink: The Inside Story of Fukushima Daiichi, the film is directed by Setsurô Wakamatsu and the title is inspired by the workers themselves, the Fukushima 50. If you’ve seen HBO’s remarkably reflective and perceptive Chernobyl, then some of what you see here will come to mind, which in a strange way enables both to be an insight into a catastrophe like this, albeit with the 1986 disaster having a more terrible outcome.
This version of events is clearly inspired by the book, as it mainly gives the impression of a part-fiction/part-reality due to the nature of events. While I don’t fully understand the political undertones enough, regarding how the Japanese manage these moments, there’s certainly a slight nod towards a divide between the understanding of those in power, and those who do the work – which isn’t unusual in any drama like this.
The film Fukushima 50 doesn’t waste a second of getting into the heavy stuff and showing us what happened in the latter half of the fateful day. After the mega-tsunami warning comes in, we witness the Power Station being flooded because let’s be frank here, it’s literally on the coast and seems like the defence mechanisms they had in place simply weren’t ready for something of that scale. We also see the fall out of the Earthquake, which obviously causes the waves, and it’s portrayed in an incredibly real manner, where the shockwaves seem real and affective, causing genuine panic and generating the image of chaos.
The film shows us that the workers are all reasonably competent, aware of safety procedure and willing to do anything to save the Station. We witness smart, organised systems with the only particularly distracting thing being all the shouting, which seems a bit over-the-top and dramatic, even in this situation, and goes on for a long time. As briefly mentioned, if you’ve seen HBO’s Chernobyl, or have a personal understanding, Fukushima 50 does love getting into the technical detail, and this is a explained by using a slight documentary style, so we’re factually informed.
In truth, even when the drama is high, the reality is tough, there’s no messing around. While the aforementioned facts are paramount, this can get a little tedious over time. I supposed this might be the difference of what I’m used to with American disaster movies (based on reality or not), as excessive stats can force you to switch off in this genre. The truth is though, we’re dealing with nuclear fallout and radiation, so a serious nature is vital but when the anxiety level is set up so high, so quickly, and it can be somewhat overwhelming. There’s also a bizarre narrative decision to try and give characters development, where it’s unnecessary, by using flashbacks to a ‘nicer’ time, which feels forced into the story, and the American military involvement is especially stale and clichéd.
Thankfully, in the latter third there’s more respite, with the legendary Ken Watanabe leading the way for his crew, and an honourable mention to Kôichi Satô, both bringing a genuine poignancy. This is a story of self-sacrifice for the greater good, working together to make the best of a horrific situation and trying to learn from mistakes. Those themes are clear but sometimes it takes a little too long to get to the point, when it’s clearly coming in from far away, and this means it suffers more than succeeds.