It will soon be 100 years since the splitting of the atom. Ernest Rutherford first turned nitrogen into oxygen (not quite lead into gold, but still quite momentous!) at the University of Cambridge in 1919, but despite all the time that has passed and all the research that has been conducted since then, nuclear energy for most people remains a weird, alien, and virtually magical force. Politicians can make whole careers out of anti-intellectual scaremongering over new installations, the "Atomic Scientists" have a Doomsday Clock that is still ticking despite it being over 25 years since the end of the Cold War, and medical equipment like MRI scanners need to be renamed to quell patients' caterwauling over "nuclear" science, even when there's not a single gamma-ray used in the entire procedure. When the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power plant in Japan suffered a meltdown following damage from the 2011 Tohoku earthquake, the incident was very quickly placed alongside Chernobyl in the public eye as creating an irradiated mutant hellscape retched up from the abyss (an alluringly easy, effort-free, indulgent temptation I've sadly succumbed to myself in the past with my review for Coppelion), despite the fact that no-one died as a direct result of the accident and if the environment was as hostile as the imagination conjures then this manga would not even exist.
The abiding and overriding image of the tsunami that struck eastern Japan in 2011 has come to be the walls blowing off the reactor buildings of the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power plant after floodwater disabled its coolant tanks - even overtaking the fact that huge swathes of countryside were destroyed not by a nuclear explosion but by the floodwaters themselves. Ichi-F is the local nickname for the plant and the manga named for it isn't an account of the disaster but relates the experiences of the workers involved in the decommissioning of the damaged facility. The manga author Kazuto Tatsuta - a pseudonym inspired by a local train station closed by the post-accident evacuation, adopted to protect the privacy of his colleagues - has direct eyewitness experience of their trials and tribulations, being himself a construction worker who has completed multiple contracts involved in the dismantling of Ichi-F. In this manga he relates the daily grind of life at the plant, the challenges it presents, the surprises it offers, and the joys it brings as life returns to the surrounding countryside of Fukushima.
That might sound surprising to some readers. Nuclear energy summons images of eerily glowing rods and the hoarse rasping cackle of Geiger counters, both ghostly traces whispering around the abandoned desolation of "The Zone". Yet for someone who has been there and back again in a place where angels fear to tread, Kazuto Tatsuta's worries are disarmingly mundane, meaning that Ichi-F interests you by getting inside your guard and grabbing your attention by wrong-footing your expectations. Tatsuta is most preoccupied not with contracting cancer but with how to itch your nose under your face-mask, sloshing about sweating cobs in a sweltering Japanese summer, mounting living expenses when waiting on standby for a job to get organised, and having to root through the garbage to find the dosimeter accidentally thrown away with all the disposable gloves. Tatsuta hasn't drawn Ichi-F to penetrate the secrets of the core - he does not want to speculate on areas outside his expertise. The subtitle for the original Japanese edition of Ichi-F calls the manga a "Labour Diary of Fukushiima Daiichi" and Tetsuta himself does not walt around pretending to be a nuclear physicist and happily and frankly concedes that he's just a day-labourer who happens to have to wear a bit more safety kit onsite than most other brickies. You might wonder then what the point of Ichi-F even is with no specialist insight, but the devil is in the detail and rather than just reiterating a secondary school textbook understanding of radioactivity he adds much-needed colour to the actual functioning of a nuclear power plant. How to suit up and strip down at either end of a work-day, negotiating the Byzantine warren of subcontractors to find out where you're even supposed to work (even Tatsuta's boss doesn't know exactly who he reports to!), where to go for a gasper when the smoking room is full, trying to find a handhold when lugging a heavy survey robot that's all screws and edges, and how to stop the power cables getting caught on corners - it's all genuinely illuminating, comprehensive and keen-eyed observational detail shining a light into the big anonymous box behind the no-entry fence.
That light throws up plenty to see, too. Tatsuta describes himself as a "failed artist" before starting Ichi-F with only minor credits for soap-opera stories across a variety of manga magazines with no viable career developing (part of the reason why he was looking for manual labour in the first place!), but his self-effacingly Japanese sort of humility sells him short. It's true enough that his art is more functional than adventurous with no vividly distinctive style, varied camera angles and the like, but it's hard to fault his technical eye with clear and detailed depictions of architecture and appliances, essential for a realistic study of an industrial environment which also means that there's still plenty of background to see even in tracts where the manga does become a bit more of a talking heads dialogue in more technical sections. He also does well in drawing the wider landscape around Fukushima, with tumbledown flood ruins exuding a melancholy elegiac dignity and overgrown fields profusing with new life even as they bury the remains of the old. It's perhaps understandable why Tatsuta feels he has no future as a mangaka even despite the success of Ichi-F as a one-off project - there's really nothing in this book that could be remotely called 'action' and appeal might not carry across to a different title with a less prurient subject - but he should certainly stay working as an able illustrator as Ichi-F is a clean, easy read.
Even if Tatsuta's art is not stylish it's still got plenty of personality. When Tatsuta's coworkers take off their face-masks there are plenty of smiles and laughter underneath them, and that beams out into the world beyond the plant as well. Fukushima is an entire prefecture and a larger place than just the nuclear power plant that bears its name, and Tetsuta also augments his exploration of Ichi-F with the countryside around it as well. There are asides talking about Fukushima's local delicacies, the music scene, even where to find a good hot spring right by Ichi-F itself - Tetsuta wants to help out his adopted home revive as the evacuation zone is cancelled and normality returns! A couple of chapters take us back to Tokyo to talk about the manga's progress to publication, which even if they have nothing to do with Fukushima are still intriguing as a Bakuman/Shirobako-esque window into the industry (I feel sorry for everyone who submitted entries to the Manga Open Grand Prize alongside Ichi-F, which the editors had already decided was going to win for publicity purposes before the contest even began...!). Throughout all of this there is a great sense of camaraderie with co-workers and community with the wider population, and whether he be visiting a local castle on a day off or singing traditional enka while volunteering at a retirement home, you feel invited into a friendly place that dismisses the shadows the stacks of the power plant cast to people further away and less connected.
When I was drafting this review a colleague challenged me for praising the 'ordinariness' of Ichi-F when I've criticised that attitude as being dull and unambitious in other reviews of mine such as that for A Centaur's Life . This is unfair as there are significant differences. The ordinariness of A Centaur's Life was no more than the same inconsequential suburban bickering over unskilled leisure like who gets to hold the television remote and what haircut to try that we've all experienced ourselves, let alone seen over and over in any one of a hundred slice-of-life anime. Ichi-F by contrast is both technical and informative, providing an insight into a specialist subject that is outside most readers' experience.
Kazuto Tetsuta seeks to inform the reader by quite deliberately playing the myth-buster who wants to downplay and dismiss the public worries over the safety of Fukushima as overexaggerated. Back when the first nuclear experiments were being made a century ago early pioneer Frederick Soddy even called the process of radioactive decay "transmutation" like an arcane alchemical mystery, and Tetsuta wishes to dispel the clouds of obfuscation that obscure his work even to this day. In chapters where he records his initial promotion of the manga he gets visibly exasperated with obnoxious interviewers who try to box him into validating their preconceived editorial line, and in multiple sections he directly challenges scurrilous rumour-mongering and sensational alarmism from Japan's own tabloid press: for instance, addressing photos of tattooed workers (insinuating that the Ichi-F cleanup is a yakuza racket - Japanese culture strongly associates tattoos with criminality) by pointing out that tattooing is also a local tradition for ex-fishermen from the region who are now working at the plant; another chapter takes you on a tour of the sights alongside a recently re-opened highway near the plant to reassure people that it's safe to drive, while another insists that reports of increased cancers in the area are not due to radiation poisoning but rather heightened scrutiny just picking up 'natural' cancers that would have otherwise gone undetected for longer. I'm not entirely sure about the statistics on that last one but it's refreshing to have a calm, alternative, reassuring perspective on these questions that is not playing to the gallery by puffing up the outrageous melodrama. The more cynical reader might dismiss Tatsuta as being a stooge for the power company but that is prejudicial because he doesn't hesitate to criticise in other areas, pointedly in the corruption of the tangling chains of contractors and sub-contractors whose only apparent role is to take a job and then pass it down to another firm (after skimming a finder's fee off the budget, natch) to repeat the process five or six times before the one left holding the can, who has to actually do the job and pay the staff, needs struggle with whatever budgetary rind and gristle is left. He still wants to think the best of people though and admits that many are just playing the hand they're dealt, while outside the office and both in the plant and the countryside, Tatsuta really is quite loyal to the honour and dignity of his disaster zone!
As Tatsuta reaches out, so Kodansha Comics tries to carry him along. The publisher has invested some effort in making Ichi-F suitable for a general audience: it's an all-in-one complete omnibus meaning that people don't mix up where they are in a series; the book has good production values with multiple colour plates; detailed translation notes are not just the "what honorifics mean" boilerplate but provide efficient context to cultural references; and sound effects have been redrawn with Latin letters. Furthermore, and most astonishingly, it's the first new manga that I've seen in over a decade that has been published with its artwork 'flipped' so that it reads left-to-right to make it more accessible for non-manga readers who are unfamiliar with the right-to-left convention of Japanese script. However, as admirable as these efforts at outreach are sadly it's a job only half-finished. If Kodansha really were committed to bringing this manga to a wider audience they should have given the manga a new title, something blunt, explicit and unmistakable like Fukushima Insider rather than sticking to Ichi-F which is just an opaque and meaningless cryptic code to any shelf-browser who'd have to lean in and squint at the spine to see what it's about. Speaking of shelf-browsing, the manga's audience is also severely curtailed by it still being stuck in the ghetto of the manga section, at least in three different Waterstones that I have visited. Ichi-F should be in the history section, the politics section, the sciences section - anywhere other than where it currently is, sandwiched in-between demon fantasy schoolgirl romances Inu x Boku SS and I Am Alice: Bodyswap in Wonderland. I've often lamented the terrible - if not virtually non-existent - marketing of Western manga publishers and this is yet another failure to appeal to people outside the anime/manga niche despite being handed on a silver platter a title which is outright designed for it. Ichi-F is a missed opportunity and a terrible waste in that respect.
It's a shame, because this story is worth telling, and hopefully this review can make up for distribution limitations elsewhere. Ichi-F is far more than just an account of dry reportage on a public controversy but a fascinating invitation to experience life at the sharp end in a way which is remarkably free of cynicism but still feels honest and heartfelt.