Nuclear disaster in Japanese film

April 8, 2011

Produced by Milos Stehlik

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(Wikimedia Commons/Toho Company Ltd.)
The movie poster for the Japanese film "Godzilla Raids Again"

The tragic irony of the Fukushima nuclear power plant disaster is that Japan is the only country to have suffered the physical horror of the nuclear bomb. In its wake, Japan developed a massive culture around the effects of nuclear fallout which resonate throughout Japanese films of the past 50 years.

The most famous and visible example was the series of low-tech Godzilla movies, which evolved into an enormous, global franchise. The first  film was released in the wake of a massive American thermonuclear weapon test near the Bikini Atoll in 1954. The test created vast radiation fallout that enveloped a Japanese fishing boat named – ironically - Lucky Dragon No. 5. Gojira, the first of the Godzilla films, broke box-office records. Rather than seeing it as camp, which American audiences did, Japanese audiences wept.  Gojira opens with a nuclear explosion in the Pacific, which spawns Godzilla — the horrific monster produced by science run amok. The Godzilla series created other monsters, including Rodan and Mothra, both of whom were also creatures born of nuclear explosions. Later, popular films like the anime classic Akira are set in Tokyo after a nuclear explosion.

Japanese movies with themes of monsters whose origins and destructive spirits evolving from uncontrolled nuclear explosions would seem to run counter to the blind trust the Japanese people placed in institutions which built nuclear power plants in areas vulnerable to earthquakes. But even here Japanese film examined the unchartered territory of ordinary people reacting and holding onto life when faced with the unimaginable horrors from the after-affects of radiation.

What makes Shohei Imamura's 1989 film, Black Rain, arguably the best film about nuclear holocaust, is that the film is told from the point-of-view of the survivors. Imamura dispenses with depictions of the destruction caused by the atomic bomb dropped on Hiroshima in about 20 minutes. The majority of the film takes place in 1950, five years later. But the bomb is still present in everyone's life. It is always there. The film’s main protagonist, Yasuko, was a young girl when the bomb fell. She survived, but as time goes on, Yasuko and her fellow survivors feel like they have become the bomb, waiting for the sickness of radiation inside them to explode with an inevitable death to follow.

Yasuko moves in with her uncle, who wants to find her a husband, but the men shy away from her, unsure of whether she’s capable of bearing children. Straddling the gulf between the traditional life her family is imposing on her and the ticking time bomb inside her, Yasuko faces a tragic dilemma not far from the experiences of ordinary people of northern Japan trapped by the nuclear power plant disaster.

Perhaps the most powerful sequences of  Black Rain are at the beginning as the people of Hiroshima go about their mundane lives. The stark black and white imagery of Black Rain, its sweeping feel, its focus on ordinary people trying to rebuild their lives after unimaginable horror, almost viscerally creeps into your skin.

Akira Kurosawa's Dreams, made in 1990, consists of eight short films, each of them an imagined dream-sequence. Two sequences in Dreams deal with nuclear disaster. Most prescient for present circumstances is Mount Fuji in Red, a dream which is really a nightmare. A large power plant near Mt. Fuji is melting down. The sky turns a terrifying color of red. Millions of people flee in desperation. Ironically, they have nowhere to go except into the sea. Two children and three adults are left behind, but soon realize that they will die anyway.  In the episode "Weeping Demon," a man wanders in a mountainous countryside. He is a mutant, a demon with one horn, who explains that a nuclear holocaust killed nature and animals and spawned enormous dandelions and humans who grow horns, causing them enormous pain. But the worst fate is that they are denied the comfort and peace of death.

In response to a film culture of the 1950s which spread fear of nuclear weapons and nuclear power, the American propaganda machine went into action.  The instructional classic Duck and Cover fostered the idea that protection from nuclear fallout was possible by hiding under a school desk. And we saw the wonders of American ingenuity and nuclear power from the educational masterpiece, Our Friend the Atom.

In 5000 Fingers of Dr. T, the only film written by Theodore Geisel  otherwise known as Dr. Seuss, Bart, as the main character, confronts a giant piano which requires him and 499 other boys to play it. He ingenuously asks, “Is it atomic?” The positive answer comes quickly: “Yes, it is very atomic.”

Milos Stehlik's comments reflect his own views and not necessarily those of Chicago Public Media, Worldview or Facets Multi-media.