Review: Fukushima 50 (2021)

Directed by: Setsurô Wakamatsu. Starring: Ken Watanabe, Kôichi Satô, Riho Yoshioka. Runtime: 2h.

On March 11, 2011, the Fukushima Daiichi Nuclear Power Plant was struck by an earthquake and tsunami. The tsunami causes the situation, but the film Fukushima 50 is about the aftermath; where the workers at the power plant fought to prevent nuclear disaster and tried to prevent a bigger disaster.

The two main players that we live through are Toshio Izaki (Kôichi Satô), a shift supervisor on the day, as well Masao Yoshida (Ken Watanabe), the nuclear plant manager at a separate location. They take us through our story as we get a factual-based drama about the situation. Directed by Setsurô Wakamatsu, the film gives us solid voices throughout as we learn how the situation was handled in every facet – from the government’s headquarters wanting constant updates to Prime Minister’s involvement in the situation.

This is one reason the drama feels somewhat academic as it simply lays out the facts so there are times where there are disconnects from the characters, as only one feels like he has true emotional development. That’s with Izaki as he has many humanizing moments throughout the film, especially when get to know his daughter, Haruka (Riho Yoshioka). We get emotions for other characters, especially in nice moments when we see the people evacuating the area and they have to leave their hometown. This surely leans into the drama of the situation with the odd burst of action. These bursts often feel like jump scares because the film is quiet and it simply surprises with an explosion.

It’s also interesting seeing a Japanese natural disaster film and how it’s structured here. Most American natural disaster movies have the main hero and endless action and that’s mainly for fictional, but even with that real-life natural disaster film, Peter Berg’s Deepwater Horizon, that felt like it followed a similar formula.

Fukushima 50 (1)
Fukushima 50. (Courtesy of Capelight Pictures.)

Here, it’s much quieter where the focus is just their experiences during the disaster and how the people reacted and how they tried to solve it. These characters are heroic, staying put in the midst of disaster for days and trying to stabilize the reactors. It’s an intriguing cultural honour thing with certain characters staying, as well. There are moments here where people are told to go home by their superiors and some react emotionally because they don’t want to give up their post.

These are the true humanizing moments in Fukushima 50 in terms of emotion, especially as they fight for their boss Toshio Izaki. Ken Watanabe is also strong as Masao Yoshida, whose performance feels more stressed out as he’s trying to figure out the situation from afar. It’s interesting watching his frustration, as well as Izaki’s, as different levels of command try to tell them how to handle situations from the comfort of Tokyo, over 220 miles away. This layer is interesting as the officials in Tokyo aren’t in the middle of the disaster. Their communities aren’t threatened, nor is there danger of radiation poisoning for them immediately.

There are definitely duller stretches of this film throughout, as it’s really driven by a main goal of trying to keep the generator at a stable level. It gets repetitive as we deal with the aftermath of the tsunami, but there are great bits throughout here. The opening tsunami scene looks great, by the way, and that’s one of the neater things about structure in this film. American natural disaster stories may set up a sense of security and then intensity for 20 minutes in the film before the disaster happens.

Here, we skip the establishing characters as the tsunami strikes within the first four minutes. Of course, the story is mostly about what happens following the tsunami, but I was impressed that we got right into that spurt of action. We get some action throughout but it’s mostly a patiently paced drama that works, telling us a story about the workers that were heroic just by doing their jobs.

Score: 63/100

Fukushima is now available On Demand and digital platforms.

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