REVIEW: Fukushima 50 (2020)

All major human events will, inevitably, be adapted into motion pictures. The time from event to film is going to vary. HBO’s Chernobyl miniseries was released 33 years after the Soviet power station suffered its catastrophic meltdown. It took only five years for the 9/11 terrorist attacks to be memorialised via Paul Greengrass’ United 93 and Oliver Stone’s World Trade Center (both 2006), and in all honesty that felt a little hasty. Even more immediate was Jean-Jacques Annaud’s Notre Dame on Fire (2022), hitting screens just three years after the legendary cathedral’s roof burned down. It takes time for history to settle in people’s minds, not to mention for the very real pain of each event’s participants to fade – if it ever does.

It has taken a little longer for Japan to reach the film adaptation stage of the 2011 Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power plant disaster – nine years – but it emerged onto screens in 2020. I have no idea when it is appropriate to transform a country’s trauma into entertainment. There is a good chance there is never a good time – all a film can do is reflect the events as accurately and in as straightforward manner as possible. United 93 and Notre Dame on Fire did that pretty well. World Trade Center did not. Fukushima 50, directed by Setsuro Wakamatsu, does not hit the heights of Greengrass and Annaud’s films. It does acquit itself reasonably well, however, by sticking to historical events and avoiding unnecessary hyperbole. The truth is terrifying enough.

On the afternoon of 11 March 2011 a magnitude 9.0 earthquake strikes off Japan’s east coast. When the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power planet appears to emerge from the quake unscathed, its staff assume a fast-approaching tsunami will be blocked by existing flood mitigation. When the tsunami strikes at a height five metres above the maximum limit, the facility is flooded with seawater and its reactors head towards meltdown.

Fukushima 50 takes its title from what the international media called the skeleton crew of power station workers that stayed behind to attempt halting the nuclear catastrophe. There were, in truth, more than 50 employees who remain, but the catchy name stuck and wound up being used by Japanese news outlets as well. In facing high risks of injury and death by irradiation, and struggling against ill-informed orders from corporate heads and the Prime Minister’s office, the Fukushima 50 risked their lives to save Japan.

Wakamatsu’s film takes pains to stick only to the documented events. The film begins with the tsunami, and introduces its cast of characters as they become involved in the spreading crisis. While it strikes me as the most responsible way to relate this kind of factual event, it does come with some costs. The films struggles to make a large cast of characters distinct beyond the few key leads – although Ken Watanabe and Koichi Sato are both excellent. At the same time there are difficulties in making events particularly suspenseful, since not only is the end result known by viewers going in but the various crises and complications are immediately familiar to anyone who has read about a nuclear disaster or seen a previous screen production of them. What is presented in Fukushima 50 feels accurate, and definitely horrifying and respectful, but it struggles to maintain energy for its entire two-hour running time.

I do not think there is a specific solution to this. What happened in Fukushima cannot be changed for a commercial screenplay. What Wakamatsu has directed is well-crafted, well-performed, and engaging. If you interested in what happened in 2011, it is difficult to imagine a better filmed version of the events. If you are seeking more of a human story, or something about the broader context of 11 March tsunami and earthquake, then that simply is not the story that Wakamatsu is presenting.

One thought on “REVIEW: Fukushima 50 (2020)

  1. Did you ever review Patriots Day? Came out three years after the Boston Marathon bombing, and conflated a lot of real people to create a lead role for Mark Wahlberg. (Granted, Chernobyl did something similar with Emily Watson’s Ulana, but that was at least partly to protect some of the real people.)

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