My second encounter with Sion Sono after Cold Fish is The Land of Hope (2012), a bleak drama heavily influenced by the 2011 Tohoku earthquake, tsunami, and accompanying nuclear disaster that struck northeastern Japan. Set in a fictional town in a fictional prefecture, much as in the real-life Fukushima incident, a strong earthquake triggers a failure at a nuclear plant and forces the evacuation of the surrounding area. The film closely follows two generations of the Ono family after the evacuation order comes just short of forcing them to leave their farm, with the younger Onos voluntarily moving away and the older generation choosing to stay for as long as they can.
Just as Cold Fish drew upon the salacious real-world details of an actual murder case, The Land of Hope draws heavily upon the 2011 earthquake. Even the name Nagashima is a clear homage to Fukushima – as well as Nagasaki and Hiroshima. Many details, including the explosion at the nuclear plant, the public distrust of the government and media portrayal of the incident, and the expanding evacuation orders are direct lifts from the disaster that struck one year before the film’s release. Curiously, however, it actually becomes clear that in the world of the film, Nagashima is not simply a fictional stand-in for Fukushima; that incident is referenced within the film itself, and Yoichi – the younger Ono – and his wife Izumi even attend meetings with Fukushima evacuees discussing how it affected their lives. This actually gives the proceedings a strange vibe, as the film seems to wobble between using the Nagashima quake as an allegory for what happened after the Tohoku quake and how the government and the Japanese public handled it, and proceeding as if the public was blithely unaware of Fukushima or a Fukushima-like event ever having occurred before, as if they do not have a very recent, visceral national memory of it.
Japanese films exploring nuclear disaster are, of course, nothing new. The country has perhaps the unfortunate distinction of being subject to the only military use of nuclear weapons in 1945, and a peacetime nuclear accident stemming from a combination of a natural disaster and inadequate safety mechanisms. Godzilla, one of the earliest Japanese films to gain international attention, grapples with nuclear power as embodied in a huge, destructive beast. Ironically, when I watched the original Godzilla I actually felt the kaiju himself was more a force of nature akin to a tsunami, rising out of the sea to ravage the coast. In The Land of Hope, the nuclear threat is more insidious, focusing on the radiological. I was actually living in Tokyo in 2011 when the earthquake occurred, and while the worst that happened to my apartment was the refrigerator shaking halfway across the room, I still remember the growing sense of nervousness about radiation. I still have the iodine tablets issued by the British embassy to combat radiation sickness should the situation change.
Being a Sion Sono production, I kept waiting for the other shoe to drop, and arguably in this film it takes the form of Izumi’s growing fear of radiation, especially after realising she is pregnant. Even after fleeing the family farm and moving to the city, she becomes increasingly obsessed, reading book after book on nuclear power and radiation, constantly referring to a collection of Geiger counters, sealing the apartment with duct tape and plastic, and eventually refusing to go outside without a full hazmat suit. Speaking at the 2012 Busan Film Festival, Sono indicated that Izumi and Yoichi were effectively the source of the film’s title – that through their future child they’re creating a ‘land of hope’. Yet the film never really seems to have any hope, and their future is tainted as Yoichi also comes to worry about radiation. Late in the film, he asks the family doctor if he should just learn to get along with radiation, and the doctor can only sigh. In the same interview in Busan, Sono points out that the radiation from Fukushima reached his home in Tokyo, and that effectively in the face of such incidents, nowhere in Japan is actually safe from it.
The echoes of Fukushima are particularly raw in the depiction of the evacuation and the ambiguous fate of the survivors. After the earthquake there is a moment of absolute, deadpan black comedy when the police stake out the edge of the 20km evacuation zone, arbitrarily declaring that one side of the street must evacuate while the Ono farm, on the other, is ‘safe’. “Is this safe?” Izumi asks frantically. “It’s air! You can’t stop it flowing!” The Ono’s neighbours are forced to evacuate immediately, abandoning even the family dog; in reality, Fukushima is rife with abandoned pets and livestock. They expect they’ll be able to return soon, but like the Fukushima evacuees, ‘soon’ becomes increasingly vague. Even in 2017, the fate of many evacuees is unsettled, so it’s particularly bleak seeing this foreshadowed even in 2012, so soon after the disaster.
Likewise, Ono Senior (Isao Natsuyagi, as the stoic emotional core of the film) distrusts the government from the get-go, reflecting the Japanese public mood at the time that the government had played down the severity of the disaster and been slow and complacent in its response. Everything is further complicated by his wife Chieko’s dementia, distressingly realised by Naoko Ohtani, leading her to be more or less unaware of the disaster.
Ultimately, it’s such a bleak depiction of such a heavy subject that I came away rather cold, less affected by it than simply depressed by the whole endeavour. Understandably, the premise is not treated with much levity nor, despite the title, much degree of hope. It’s nevertheless an impressive film, particularly the performances by Natsuyagi and Ohtani, and worth investigating – though your mileage may vary depending on your mood going in and what you want to get out of Sono’s work.
The Land of Hope / 希望の国 (Kibou no Kuni)
Director: Sion Sono
Japanese Release Date: 30th October 2012
Version Watched: 134 min