If director author Sion Sono (Himizu) hadn’t used the word himself, odds are you’d have never thought his 2012 masterpiece The Land Of Hope (希望の国 Kibō no Kun) a science fiction film.
Released in the wake of the devastating 2011 Fukushima nuclear disaster, there’s a clear mission at the heart of Sono’s tale of a family divided by a fictional explosion at a nuclear plant in the fictional Nagashima prefecture an indeterminate number of years in the future – one of those a-week-from-today universes set aside for the most heartfelt of sci-fi films.
The crude portmanteau of Fukushima and Nagasaki is perhaps the least subtle thing about The Land Of Hope which forgoes disaster movie spectacle – Roland Emmerich style towerblock rupturing – to deliver an intimate drama of a family on the edge of an exclusion zone as police and officials obstruct and obfuscate.
Son Yoichi Ono (Cutie Honey‘s Jun Murakami) and daughter to in-law Izumi (Himizu and 13 Assassins‘ Megumi Kagurazaka) leave in the wake of their neighbours who are all bussed out of the town by the army. Father Yasuhiko Ono (the late Isao Natsuyagi) and mother Chieko (Naoko Ohtani), who seems to be suffering from dementia, stay on the periphery of their deserted town, watching the news, tending their flower beds and refusing to leave out of fear that like the Fukushima evacuees, they’ll never be allowed to return.
Yoichi and Izumi start a new life in a nearby town, but Izumi’s pregnancy brings on a wave of paranoia – she cradles her Geiger counter and coats the flat in bubble wrap, fearful of creeping radiation on her unborn child. The slightly dopy Yoichi struggles with his loyalty to her and his commitment to their new life, the mockery of his workmates for his housebound hypochondriac, and the anxiety about his parents.
Are her fears valid, even though the townsfolk’s own paranoia and suspicion toward the refugees has abated, or is she unhinged? Yoichi stands by her regardless.
“A month ago you refused to boil rice with tap water,” screams Yoichi at his sniggering workmates on a ratty scrap yard. “Have you forgotten?”
Mitsuru (Yutaka Shimizu) and Yoko (Hikari Kajiwara), a teenage neighbour and his girlfriend from a town in the tsunami’s path, leave their refugee camp to run the police lines and roam around the exclusion zone, clambering over the tsunami-damaged buildings where Mitsuru’s parents live in one of Sono’s rare indulgences into dumbfounding scale.
It’s well-judged, after so long with people living out the small moments in the shadow of the yellow biohazard tape, the big moments are genuinely shocking. The power plant itself is a similarly abstract figure, only ever seen on screen in background news footage and adorning the town’s welcome sign with foreboding cheeriness. It renders the threat of radiation poisoning as inscrutable for the viewer as for the protagonists – all pervasive through its absence, not unlike Chris Gorak’s superbly tense Right At Your Door.
Shot with the warm parochialism of a soap opera, Sono brings you into the lives of the Ono family and steadily builds the suspense to knuckle-whitening levels. As affecting as the other strands in the narrative are, it’s the Ono parents on their farm, that remain the most compelling. There’s a bittersweet fatalism to their story that seems effortlessly affecting, reminiscent of bleak animated apocalypse fable When The Wind Blows. It’s far from effortless though, it’s all down to Sono’s deft pacing that makes full use of the not inconsiderable running time and the superb performances of Natsuyagi and Ohtani, the childlike energy and glee as Chieko’s face lights up, the twinkle in Yasuhiko’s eye as he answers her endlessly repetitive questions, tousles her hair and prepares her meals.
It’s a portrait of real love, and that their story can only have one ending is utterly heart-wrenching. Like Studio Ghibli’s crushing Grave Of The Fireflies, we find escape in their moments of escape – Yasuhiko dancing in the snow with the kimino-clad Chieko at the heart of the exclusion zone after she skips innocently into the abandoned town, convinced that a festival is happening, and he runs a police cordon to chase after her in panic – because the only other option would be despair.
Graceful, beautiful and painfully tragic, Sion Sono set out to create a potent peon to the tragedy of nuclear fallout that would resonate free of the constraints of any real event. It’s fair to say he succeeded, and The Land Of Hope is a film that will linger over your eyelids long after the lights have gone out.