Director: Setsuro Wakamatsu
Cast: Koichi Sato, Ken Watanabe, Riho Yoshioka, Hidetaka Yoshioka, Narumi Yasuda, Shirō Sano, Mitsuru Hirata, Yuri Nakamura, Shigeru Izumiya, Shōhei Hino, Naoto Ogata
Runtime: 2 hrs 1 min
Rating: PG (Some Disturbing Scenes)
Released By: Encore Films
Official Website: https://fukushima50.jp
Opening Day: 30 July 2020
Synopsis: March 11, 2011, 2:46 pm. Japan’s Tohoku Region. At a magnitude of 9.0, the strongest earthquake in Japan’s history struck, triggering a huge tsunami and carnage to the effect of more than 19,000 people dead. It mercilessly swallowed the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power plant in Fukushima prefecture. The nuclear reactors were unable to be cooled because of a crippling station blackout, causing hydrogen explosions in building after building. If the power plant was abandoned, Japan’s destruction was assured. Facing such a life or death situation, workers known as the “Fukushima 50”, including shift supervisor Izaki and plant manager Yoshida, remained on the site of the nuclear power plant on the brink. As the world held its breath and watched, they fought for their hometown and their families.
Natural disasters are a common occurrence in Japan. Earthquakes ranked on top of course. Recently, torrential rain hit the southwestern region of Kyushu resulting in flooding and mudslides. Over the years, the Japanese film industry has churned out inspiring disaster theme dramas and animations but only this one, Fukushima 50 is based on a recent real-life event.
On March 11, 2011, a catastrophe that nearly crippled or even destroyed half of Japan happened at the Fukushima Daiichi power plant in Fukushima prefecture. After an earthquake of magnitude 9.0 struck Japan, a huge tsunami is shortly triggered, crippling the plant’s power supply and in turn, causing the inability to cool down the reactor and resulting in hydrogen explosions and radiation leakage.
A small group of plant engineers led by Izaki (Koichi Sato) spearhead a suicidal mission to cool down the reactor units. Gung-ho Plant Manager Yoshida (Ken Watanabe) on the other hand has to deal with the incompetent higher authorities at the Tokyo Electric Power Company in Tokyo and the increasing pressure by the Japanese government led by a fuming Prime Minister (supposedly based on PM Naoto Kan).
Based on a 2012 book by author Ryusho Kadota who complied more than 90 interviews with the staff at the plant, Fukushima 50 is a talky drama (featuring many talking heads) that devotes itself to commemorate the bravery and contributions of the men who stayed behind to save Japan from being swallowed by explosive nuclear power rather than being Chernobyl the second.
Thus instead of a massive commercial entertaining action flick that features copious amount of CGI and explosions, it’s more of a well-made drama that showcases some of the best on-screen performances from Koichi Sato and Hollywood’s go to Japanese actor, Ken Watanabe. Sato delivers a quiet, subtle performance as a man who loves both his family and job dearly. Yoshida is a man not afraid to question the higher-ups and Watanabe surprises with his perfect take on the character who is acknowledged as the only character in the movie that is based on a real-life person. Perhaps due to privacy issues and running time, the rest of the characters are a composite of several actual persons.
The most enjoyable part of the movie is it no-holds-barred in insinuating the incapabilities of the higher-ups at Tokyo Electric Power Company and the government to take swift remedies to resolve the thorny situation. Without giving much support in terms of resources, they have to in turn rely on a bunch of onground engineers and the Plant Manager to bravely avert the disaster while the clock ticks. It has to be said the engineers are mostly willing to sacrifice their lives not just for the greater good but for their immediate families who have been evacuated to nearby makeshift centres.
Fukushima 50 is a well-made drama documenting the chaotic happenings at the plant after the earthquake strike. It takes you behind-the-scenes of how bureaucracy works in real-life and the comparison between the ability of a ground worker and the suits and ties. While the reactors are somewhat controlled and Fukushima is still on the path to recovery given it has been nearly nine years since the tragedy, we hope nothing of that scale will happen again. Ironically, given the current COVID-19 pandemic happening round the globe, this seems to be the next best material to be adapted to the big screen.
(A wordy love letter to the resilient Japanese)
Review by Linus Tee