The story of the nuclear plant employees who risked everything to stave disaster and save Japan
On March 11 2011, Japan was rocked by a massive 9.0 earthquake and its aftershocks. Besides devastating the Tohoku region, it also kicked off one of the history’s most terrifying nuclear incidents as the Fukushima Daiichi Nuclear Power Plant was unexpectedly flooded and incapacitated by the resultant tsunami.
The “Fukushima 50” refers the approximately 50 employees who stayed onsite for several days to cool down the reactors even as the region was being evacuated, and whose brave actions likely saved Japan from a holocaust-level disaster. On the event’s tenth anniversary, a new film chronicles their tale.
While categorically a disaster movie, the film is not really about destruction, which mostly takes place within the first few minutes to set the stage, but rather the response to the crisis.
Ken Watanabe and Koichi Sato star as the site’s superintendent Masao Yoshida, and a mid-level supervisor, Toshio Isaki, respectively, whose leadership in the incident helped galvanize and their response teams, make extremely tough decisions about courses of action, and navigate the government’s bumbling bureaucratic response.
Watanabe’s Superintendent Yoshida must not only deal with the immediate realities of his power plant’s cores melting, but also communicate with the Prime Minister’s office and government disaster response team, who are not only woefully inept and inadequately prepared to deal with the situation, but offer directives which make things better instead of worse. This film is not subtle about its stance on bureaucracy, and you can really get behind the anger of Yoshida as he berates them and ignores their idiotic orders like ceasing to cool the reactors using readily available ocean water because of concerns that the water could contain contaminants, when it’s literally the only thing slowing or preventing their meltdowns.
Koichi Sato isn’t as well known to western audiences as Watanabe, but you may recognize him from well known films like the Gonin series, Spiral, and When the Last Sword Is Drawn. He’s doing expressive and sympathetic work here as a natural leader who inspires his team to perform impossible tasks, many of them in the dark and without power, in the face of peril.
In other respects, some of the other acting isn’t as impressive and seems pretty over-the-top at times. Characters yell constantly, and the bumbling bureaucrats and bigwigs feel aggressively, cartoonishly incompetent. It seems like a lot of overacting to me, though but I acknowledge I may be off-base here — this is my western viewpoint trying to analyze a more emotive culture.
Establishing shots give a good sense of the geography of the events, and one really clever aspect of the film I applaud is that whenever one of the reactors does actually explode, the event is very sudden and catches you off balance, as it should.
The film occasionally goes into an unnecessary English-language side story that covers the US government’s emergency relief response to the disaster (Operation Tomodachi), which is really ill-fitting and stands up poorly to the rest of the film. It feels like something that was might have been added to pander to American audiences and provide some blockbuster flavor and English dialogue for international trailers, but in reality it somehow manages to be both too much and too little. This is a fundamentally Japanese story and this American spotlight is extraneous to the story and unnecessary. That said, the operation was in fact a massive effort — thousands of servicemembers deployed over the course of 2 months, to the tune of $90M — which is portrayed as a couple of choppers flying in bottled water. Mercifully, this is all a very minor aspect of the film (all the more reason it should have been excised).
Despite some missteps, overall I really liked the film. The melodrama is a little over the top at times, but still affecting, and these guys are truly real life heroes and deserving of a film honoring their story. And while movies — even movies based on real events — obviously aren’t meant to be taken at face value as historical fact, the truth of the matter is that I went into the film knowing little about the Tōhoku earthquake and virtually nothing about the Fukushima Daiichi meltdown — and now I have at least a cursory knowledge about these events.
Fukushima 50 is available now on Blu-ray from Capelight Pictures and MPI.
The film has both English dubs (the default option, surprisingly) and a Japanese language track.
Subtitles are available both for the Japanese dialogue only as well as for SDH (which also includes subs for the English-spoken parts) — as someone with hearing loss I want to call this out, as it’s something they did right that a lot of foreign film Blu-rays get wrong. The subtitle track has a few minor typos.
Special Features and Extras
The disc includes the film’s trailer. Additional promo trailers appear both on startup and available from the menu.
Promotional trailers for Ashfall (1:35), Attraction 2: Invasion (1:42), The Man Standing Next (1:37), and Spacewalker (1:22)
Except where noted, all 16:9 screen images in this review are direct captures from the disc(s) in question with no editing applied, but may have compression or resizing inherent to file formats and Medium’s image system. All package photography was taken by the reviewer.