Atsushi Funahashi’s documentary Nuclear Nation is packed with signs, banners, and placards. One of its first shots is a close-up of a piece of cardboard, bent in half, with the words “Official Disaster Victim Registration Desk” written on it in marker. One of its last lingering images is of the metal sign that once welcomed visitors to Futaba, epicenter of the 2011 Fukushima nuclear disaster. It reads: “Atomic Energy Makes Our Town and Society Prosperous.” In between these two are countless other conflicting signs, carried by protestors, hung on the sides of houses, and posted on the doors of committees and offices. The signs provide narrative shortcuts, counterpoint, and—as in the case of the Futaba welcome sign—easy-to-grasp irony.
Futaba didn’t need a nuclear power plant; what it needed, badly, was money. Nuclear industry funds and government subsidies balanced the town’s budget for decades while driving down property values and taxes, forcing the community to seek more outside funding; at the time the Tohoku tsunami struck, two new reactors were slated for construction. The residents ended up literally losing the town—considered uninhabitable for the immediate future—to nuclear power.
The exasperation of Futaba’s former residents is palpable. One young man blames the power plant for the death of his mother, because worries about radiation prevented rescue teams from searching the area for tsunami survivors. A farmer refuses to leave behind his three hundred irradiated cattle, believing that they are living testaments to the dangers of nuclear power. Sitting in an evacuee shelter, a man holds up a newspaper listing the names of the dead; it’s covered in red pen marks, each one denoting someone he personally knew. Through these stories, Funahashi makes it clear that the “relief” offered to the evacuees—apartments in distant cities, visits from the emperor and empress, modest payouts from plant owner TEPCO—can never replace the community they’ve lost.
Nuclear Nation is therefore something of a misnomer, at least for the American-release cut of the film, which is almost 50 minutes shorter than the original version. There are intimations of wide-scale wrongdoing, but, for the most part, the movie takes an eye-level approach to the disaster, focusing on the experiences of ordinary people living in makeshift shelters and public housing, lining up for food, and returning to their homes in hazmat suits. Tangents involving government committees and the nuclear energy lobby only serve to scatter the already-diffuse narrative, as do numerous intertitles relaying facts about nuclear power in Japan or indicating the passage of seasons; they seem like leftovers from a longer film.