Fukushima 50

In Films by Samuel Love

HBO’s Chernobyl series was arguably the television event of 2019. The harrowing five-part drama told the story of the 1986 nuclear accident – one of the worst man-made catastrophes in history – and the sacrifices made in the attempts to save Europe from disaster. Ask anyone about nuclear disasters, and 9 out of 10 will almost certainly go straight to Chernobyl. But a far more recent story is dramatized in Setsurō Wakamatsu’s compelling disaster-drama Fukushima 50, which serves as an effective companion piece to HBO’s acclaimed miniseries.

This big-budget blockbuster retelling of the 2011 Fukushima Daiichi nuclear disaster focuses on the titular heroic 50 who averted total destruction thanks to their selfless courage. Plant manager Masao Yoshida (Ken Watanabe) must deal with the bureaucratic difficulties as head office and the Kantei (Prime Minister’s Office) get involved with conflicting orders, while Koichi Sato’s shift supervisor leads the efforts to relieve pressure in the reactor cores from the plant’s control room. Fukushima 50 is something of a blow-by-blow account of those fateful days it portrays, focusing on the dynamics between the key players in a narrative structure that is chronological, but ultimately rather uninspired. The film’s delivery is certainly rote and lacking in originality, and not to mention repetitive – expect scene after scene of panicked yelling between the two rooms where most of the runtime takes place, with the fast-paced and overlapping dialogue difficult to keep up with due to often brief subtitles. But with that said, the pacing of the film is certainly efficient; the developing disaster means that our characters – and by extension, the audience – never get a rest.

The film is certainly emotionally involving due to the stellar lead performances and the powerful tale it portrays, but the film’s biggest downfall is its international cut that Altitude have released here in the UK. While the Japanese cut focuses entirely on those within the plant and their families, the cut we are stuck with includes nauseatingly crowbarred-in scenes of American characters that are jarring, forced and abysmally performed. The Japanese cut is vastly superior, presenting the entirety of the story from the perspective of the heroes it portrays. 

The film’s visual effects are serviceable if not particularly impressive, and the supporting cast are largely good aside from the occasional hammy performance. A tacked-on sentimental epilogue (inexplicably soundtracked by Danny Boy) does feel a little heavy-handed, but on the whole, Fukushima 50 is an inspiring and powerful testament to the bravery of the nuclear plant’s workers as they pull together in a time of crisis. It is a timely reminder of the power of cooperation to thwart a catastrophe, which is something a lot of people could certainly learn from right now. 

Fukushima 50 is certainly a compelling and fascinating portrayal of a fateful period in Japanese history, one that certainly could have been considerably more tragic if not for the titular heroes. But despite stellar performances and effective emotional beats, the international cut of Fukushima 50 suffers considerably for the jarring inclusion of a superfluous American subplot. 

Fukushima 50 is a powerful and inspiring tribute to the bravery of its heroes, but is ultimately let down by jarring shifts in narrative focus.