A "Fukushima Paradigm" in Cinema

A "Fukushima Paradigm" in Cinema

Key words : Cinema, Fukushima, Anthropocene, Japan, scepticism


Nine years have passed since the earthquake and tsunami of 11 March 2011 resulted in the worst nuclear disaster since Chernobyl at the Fukushima Daiichi power plant (Tohoku, Japan). Japanese filmmakers were quick to grasp it, and the cinema that emerged from this disaster has lastingly transformed the medium itself, as well as the world it projected. We will take Tomita Katsuya's Tenzo (Critics' Week, Cannes 2019), one of the most striking films on the subject in recent years, as an example of these transformations.


Cinema since Fukushima

The Yamagata International Documentary Film Festival has been collecting films for a dedicated program (Cinema With Us) since 2011, contributing to an archive that opened in 2014. This regional documentary fund, together with the amateur film archives of the Sendai Media Library and the UniJapan National Archives, constitutes a constantly growing collection. For, as we know, the multifaceted Fukushima disaster has evolved from a devastating event (18,500 dead and missing, 160,000 forced evacuations, processions of devastated houses, uprooted trees, torn-up roads) to a long-lasting crisis due to the continuation of radioactive leaks. So our reflection on cinema since Fukushima, which began with the study of the corpus of films from 2011, has logically extended in the direction of the "civilizational catastrophe" pointed out by the philosopher Jean-Luc Nancy (L'équivalence des catastrophes, 2012). This disaster is part of the revelation to Japanese citizens and the world at large of the human destruction of terrestrial spaces, marking what scientists have called "the human epoch" (Nature, 11 March 2015): the entry into a new geological era of Earth's reactivity to human activities, the Anthropocene.

Faced with this transformed reality that goes beyond the limits of our space-time perception, forcing us to think about phenomena that encompass us (hyperobjects such as the biosphere or the sum of nuclear waste, according to Timothy Morton (Hyperobjects, 2013)) and unprecedented temporalities (the four million year half-life of certain radioactive elements), cinema, whose native ambition is to make the world present to us, has found itself challenged both to represent the invisibility of radioactive pollution and to give an account of the suffering of the populations of this durably damaged new world. The medium itself has been profoundly transformed. Since 2011, films have accompanied our perception of our endangered life forms, and given new acuity to the sceptical feeling of exile from the world and from others, where the American philosopher Stanley Cavell sees a feature of the human condition (The Claim of Reason, 1979). At the same time as giving us the means to think about the new categories that articulate our experience, these films educate us about the world to come. The idea of a "Fukushima paradigm" in cinema thus signals a double reconfiguration of our relationship to the world and to the cinematic medium.

Tomita Katsuya's Tenzo follows the friendship of two monks: one real (Chiken Kawaguchi), the other played by a monk-actor (Ryûgyô Kurashima) inspired by the life of a Fukushima monk who became a worker on building sites after the disaster. Tomita, a major figure of independent Japanese cinema, shares the doubts of these monks exposed to the suffering of the disaster victims who are going through the crisis with a bottle of sake in their hands. Revealed in 2012 by Saudade filmed in the milieu of precarious construction workers in Yamanashi, Tomita Katsuya has an unusual trajectory: a truck driver and a worker, he shot on Sundays with his own means. Tenzo, his most personal film, deploys two recurring questionings of the Fukushima paradigm in cinema.


Acknowledging the suffering of victims

Tenzo is first of all part of a trend in Japanese cinema to try to "respond" or remedy the first wave of "disaster tourism" films (shot in the "sublime" rubble of the earthquake and tsunami) by acknowledging the suffering of the victims. Victims of the tsunami and the earthquake, but also victims in the medium and long term of the nuclear disaster whose health effects we know will be long-lasting. Cinema, so suited to spectacular paintings of ruins and destruction, is here challenged to express fear of an invisible danger (radiation), and a despair that advances masked when everyone is eager to show their faith in reconstruction.

In Nuclear Nation I (2012) & II (2014), Funahashi Atsushi filmed the daily life of the inhabitants of Futaba relocated in a high school in Saitama. Somakanka. Memories of a Lost Landscape (2011) and Horses of Fukushima (2013) by Matsubayashi Yojiu or No Man's Zone (2012) by Fujiwara Toshi, interview the victims at length. Fictions also express the fear of health consequences (in the lineage of Living in Fear (Ikimono no kiroku, 1955) by Kurosawa Akira), such as Arekara (2012) and Sharing (2014) by Shinozaki Makoto or Odayaka (2012) by Uchida Nobuteru, tears within families or between neighbours (The Land of Hope (Kibo no Kuni, 2012) by Sion Sono, Women on the Edge (2012) or Japan's Tragedy (2012) by Kobayashi Mashiro). The filmmakers sought cinematic devices to deal with the suffering of the victims without forcing their modesty in a situation of continuing disaster. Their solutions are diverse. One thinks, for example, of the theatrical device devised by Sakai Ko and Hamaguchi Ryusuke to collect the memories of tsunami survivors in their documentary trilogy The Sound of the Waves (Nami no oto, 2011), Voices from the Waves (Nami no koe, 2013) and Storytellers (2013).

Tomita reports in Tenzo on the experience of a monk who is the father of a three-year-old child with multiple allergies. Reduced to visiting his followers in their temporary homes, or answering a dedicated hotline, the father monk is himself a kind of echo chamber to the destruction of the human fabric in the region.

Tenzo, Tomita Katsuya

The ordeal of the monk travelling through the devastated region with his van meets that of the inhabitants he is supposed to comfort. Until the day when the roles are reversed and the monk burst into tears.


Tenzo, Tomita Katsuya

The filmmaker has however erased the tragic outcome of the suicide of this monk from Fukushima. The demand for recognition of the victims' pain leads us to reconsider the legacy of two great documentary filmmaker-activists, Tsuchimoto Noriaki (Minamata Series, 1971-1975) and Ogawa Shinsuke (Sanrizuka Series, 1968-1973), in these filmmakers who stand by the disaster-stricken populations of Tohoku.


Beyond documentary and fiction: the disturbing strangeness

In Tenzo, Tomita weaves documentary and fiction to portray a world where reality and artifice are intrinsically intertwined. The film was commissioned by the Sōtō Buddhist school, known for its articulation of Zen with food, for a promotional video for the World Congress of Buddhist Schools. Under the pen of Tomita and his co-scriptwriter Aizawa, it was transformed into a fiction where two monks meet. The film mixes real shots and computer-generated images to depict a strange world, where human activities (here nuclear power) have almost emptied the environment of its human and non-human inhabitants and transformed the landscape. The mixing of different kinds of images reminds us that cinema itself is part of this artificial and anthropogenic double of the Earth we live in, which environmentalist Bill McKibben calls "eaarth" (Eaarth: Making a Life on a Tough New Planet, 2010) - see Jennifer Fay, Inhospitable World. Cinema in the Time of the Anthropocene, 2018. Monks are plagued by visions, dreams and nightmares, projections into the past and future, as reality has ceased to be effectively captured by the perceptual frameworks that prevail in classical fiction. In Fukushima the worst dangers remain invisible, the survivors hear the voices of their dead. In short, reality is thus not accessible to the usual documentary regime and tends towards what Freud calls "The Uncanny" (1919), where cinema finds its natural element according to the American philosopher Stanley Cavell (The World Viewed, 1971). For this reason, Sakai and Hamaguchi made room in their documentary for the "voice of the dead" among the testimonies of survivors. And Nobuhiro Suwa based his latest film, The Phone of the Wind (Kaze no Denwa, 2020), on the documented existence of a phone booth for talking to the dead in a private garden in Otsushi, which has attracted more than 30,000 visitors since 2011.

To paint the devastated inner life of the monk of Fukushima, Tomita has staged pseudo "documentary" footage of domestic life to allow for fantastic escapes. This interweaving responds to the Buddhist principle of interdependence that a nun exposes during an interview; operating at all levels of life from the living to the planets and galaxies, and which Tomita sets up as a principle of staging. The montage encompasses the capture of daily cooking gestures and associated religious rituals, cosmological visions or even more impure images, popularized by the democratization of digital tools, such as time-lapses (parades of images taken at different times, which have an accelerating effect in the shot) or a mosaic of photos that blend into a sculpted wall. Its hybridity is the participation of each organism (plant, animal, human being) and each moment (meal, domestic task, meditation) in an intimate and global painting of the spiritual state of Japan since Fukushima.

At the end of the film, in a beautiful chiaroscuro scene, the two lines of the film meet: that of the documentary played and that of the fiction adapting reality. Ryûgyô comes back from a pilgrimage in China on the trail of Master Dôgen. He discusses interdependence with his friend Chiken in the intermittent light of a lighthouse: "Do you mean to say that we are all part of the cycle of life? Can you say the same in Fukushima? ». Darkness seems to absorb them. What remains of this Buddhist principle since Fukushima? seems to ask the film.  How can we think of this synergy now damaged?

It belongs to the Fukushima paradigm in cinema to exploit the ontological kinship of the cinematic medium with the expression of the things of the world and their capacity for reflection (to say it with Leibniz). These films deprive us of the privilege of holding the point of view from which cinema, the art of the gaze, has always organized (or disorganized) the projection of the world with its own means, realistic and magical at the same time. What better way to send us back to the fundamental experience of our scepticism?


Élise Domenach

Associate Professor in Film Studies, Ecole normale supérieure Lyon
Member of the Institute for Eastern Asia Studies (CNRS-UMR5062)



Bibliography :

Domenach Élise, Fukushima en cinéma. Voix du cinéma japonais / Fukushima in Film. Voices from the japanese cinema, UTCP Booklet, Tokyo University Press, 2015.

Domenach Élise, Bragard Magali, Tomita Katsuya, Le moine et le cinéaste. Entretien avec Tomita Katsuya, Esprit, 2019.

Fay Jennifer, Inhospitable World. Cinema in the Time of the Anthropocene, Oxford University Press, 2018.

Ferrier Michaël et Doumet Christan (dir.), Penser avec Fukushima, Nantes, Éditions Cécile Dufaut, 2016.

Macé Marielle (dir.), Critique « Vivre dans un monde abîmé », n°860-861, 2019.

Morton Timothy, Hyperobjects: Philosophy and Ecology After the End of the World, University of Minnesota Press, 2013.


Filmography :

Tenzo (2019) de Tomita Katsuya

No Man’s Zone (2012) de Fujiwara Toshi

The Land of Hope (Kibo no Kuni, 2012) de Sion Sono

Nuclear Nation II (2014) de Funahashi Atsushi

Tenzo, Tomita Katsuya