Sunday, September 15, 2013

Radiophobia; or, Is There a Geiger Counter App?: Sion Sono’s The Land of Hope

Radiophobia—according to Wikipedia, which has never steered us wrong—is the fear of ionizing radiation, of the sort that was released during the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear meltdown, or in the Bikini Atoll hydrogen bomb test which irradiated the Japanese fishing vessel Fukuryu Maru, or of the sort released by the atomic bombs dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki.  As we have mentioned elsewhere on this blog, Japan has almost certainly suffered from more catastrophic nuclear shit than any other country (with the possible exception of, say, the Marshall Islands, which is such a small country that maybe they suffered proportionately more as a result of U.S. nuclear tests; but, you know, it’s not a competition).  As I write this post, radiation continues to seep into the ground beneath Fukushima Daiichi and from there into the Pacific Ocean.  Fukushima also hosts hundreds of containers of radioactive water (which, after being pumped through the reactors to cool their nuclear fuel rods, the Tokyo Electric Power Company apparently has nowhere else to store it but on-site) which another catastrophic earthquake/tsunami could release into the atmosphere.

It is not surprising if all of this has certain segments of the Japanese population feeling radiophobic, and this is the subject of Sion Sono’s 2012 film The Land of Hope.  Sono is something of an enfant terrible—his previous works include mindfucks like Suicide Club and Cold Fish, not to mention the four-hour up-skirt photography epic, Love Exposure.  In the wake of the 2011 Tohoku earthquake and tsunami and the subsequent meltdowns at Fukushima, Sono took the script he had just finished working on and rewrote it to take the recent disasters into account; the result was Himizu (2011), which has not been made available yet in the U.S. (alas) and the merits of which I cannot speak to.  He followed it up with The Land of Hope, which recently became available on Hulu courtesy of the people at Asian Crush.

In The Land of Hope, a second earthquake/tsunami/meltdown has struck a nuclear plant in the town of Nagashima (Wikipedia says there’s a Nagashima in Kyushu, but it doesn’t mention a nuclear plant; let’s assume Sono’s Nagashima is fictitious).  The film mainly follows the impact of the disaster on a multigenerational Nagashima farming family (it also intermittently follows the fortunes of another family, their neighbors, but they frequently drop out of the film for long stretches and their inclusion feels like more of an afterthought).  There is the paterfamilias, Yasuhiko Ono; his wife Chieko, who appears to have Alzheimer’s disease or some form of dementia that causes her to experience memory impairment and a disconnect from reality; the son, Yoichi; and Yoichi’s wife, Izumi.  The nearby nuclear plant begins to melt down, the authorities set up an exclusion zone (much as they did at Fukushima) which comes right up to the Ono’s property.  Now, if you’re on the very edge of a twenty-kilometer exclusion zone, you’re probably not much safer on one side than you would be on the other, and Yasuhiko instructs his son and daughter-in-law to flee.  He and his wife are too old and too stubborn to be moved.  So Izumi and Yoichi relocate to a new town that’s theoretically a safe distance away from Nagashima (and Fukushima) and there Izumi finds herself pregnant.  And she becomes consumed with radiophobia.  She stocks up on the surgical masks so popular amongst the Japanese, then rapidly escalates to a full-scale hazmat suit, which she wears whenever she ventures forth from the apartment which she’s sealed shut with plastic wrap and tape.

In a previous post in which I touched upon the situation at Fukushima, I mentioned the famous T. S. Eliot line, “I can show you fear in a handful of dust,” and pointed out how the dust is now radioactive.  What Sono seeks to explore in his movie is how one goes on living when the air itself is poisoned with fear (and cesium).  And he does so with a compassion and restraint that his previous films had led me to believe he didn’t have in him.  Movies like Strange Circus or Cold Fish are in gloriously poor taste.  A subject like the recent disasters in Japan would seem to call for tact and delicacy, and Sono delivers.  In his treatment of the old couple left behind near the exclusion zone, he raises similar issues to those broached in Michael Haneke’s Amour (also 2012, which got all the international awards) without the Austrian miserablist’s unrelenting pessimism.  And in depicting Izumi’s radiophobia, he demonstrates the workings of a very modern type of fear and the age-old methods with which to confront it.  Finally, there is a journalistic quality to The Land of Hope—it is very “zeitgeisty”—and, as Fukushima continues to ooze radiation into the sea, Sono’s film should be required viewing for those seeking to understand what this disaster means for Japan and the world.

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