When the catastrophic earthquake struck Japan in March 2011, director Sion Sono was so deeply moved by the disaster’s aftermath that he incorporated it into the film he was in the middle of shooting, Himizu, and now returns once again to the subject of post-Fukushima Japan with his latest film, Land of Hope. However, where Himizu was a howl of pain for ruined youth, Land of Hope is a sigh of stoic resignation for the powerlessness of old age. In a much more restrained and perhaps more mature shooting style than his previous work, Sono explores the impact of the nuclear crisis on those most closely affected by it as well as the country as a whole with a notably personal eye.
The small town of Nagashima (home of the famous nuclear plant) is home to a close knit agricultural community where neighbours help each other out and share their excess produce. When an earthquake strikes one day, suddenly and without warning, Mr Ono’s first fear (after making sure his family are safe of course) is that the integrity of the nuclear power plant will fail - an eventuality he’s been preparing for ever since the plant was completed despite strenuous opposition. His worst fears are confirmed as an explosion causes dangerous radiation to leak out, polluting the surrounding area to a radius of 20km.
Unfortunately this leads to the mandatory evacuation zone extending halfway across his courtyard, separating the Onos from friends and neighbours who lived just a few steps away. The family who lived opposite, the Suzukis, must leave everything behind (including their pet dog) and head to an evacuation centre while the Ono’s are allowed to remain at home despite being separated from the zone only by a thin yellow ribbon. Increasingly worried about the radiation threat, Mr Ono encourages his son and daughter-in-law, Yoichi and his wife Izumi, to head to ‘safer’ ground but staunchly refuses to leave himself. Yasuhiko and his wife Chieko who suffers from dementia have to come to terms with the fact that the peaceful old age they’d envisioned for themselves surrounded by family and their ancestral dairy farm will never come into existence.
The absurdity of the situation isn’t lost on Sono, who’s quick to notice the ridiculously arbitrary nature of the evacuation zone - how can there be life threatening pollutants in the air one side of a line and the air on the other side totally pure? This is unfortunately only where bureaucratic absurdities begin. The chilling way in which the evacuation team arrive - covered head to toe in white hazmat suits and refusing to even acknowledge the presence of anyone not in the team, enforcing the evacuation orders with stone cold efficiency all the way, is quite a telling symbol of the way the authorities view the importance of communication with the ordinary public. It becomes clear very quickly that you can’t rely on the information the government or the media is giving you nor can you rely on them to help you.
Although the issues are obviously extremely important, Land of Hope does (very) occasionally fall into the the same trap as many issue-based films where the issues themselves begin to overwhelm the drama. This happens numerous times in the film where a character is given some actual information or statistical data to relate to the audience which inevitably sounds forced and unnatural, jolting the audience out of the story and into reality. Unfortunately, this adds to a certain heavy handedness which sometimes makes the film seem overblown.
This isn’t helped by the film’s tone which (mostly successfully) straddles a broadly naturalistic depiction of the issues alongside a heightened theatricality which provides many of the film’s most striking images. These tonal disparities occasionally work against the actors’ performances, leading some scenes to seem much bigger or more melodramatic than the audience is expecting. The film is also undermined by a slightly sticky feeling of sentimentality. Strangely, Land of Hope has more than a little in common with the sort of family dramas Sono has been quick to criticise, and indeed subvert, in the past.
The other major problem with the film’s structure is that the two narrative strands - that of the Onos and that of the Suzukis - feel completely unbalanced. The Onos’ story is the primary narrative and so takes up the majority of screen time but constant cutaways to the unrelated side story concerning the Suzuki’s son and his girlfriend often feel more of a distraction from, rather than complement to, the main story.
Although there is some striking imagery employed (especially in the final scenes), Land of Hope often feels disappointingly mainstream and lacking in character from a director whose previous work has been so anarchic and irreverent. It’s certainly a very sincere piece, and perhaps it’s the film the times demand, but in many ways Land of Hope fails to achieve its fairly lofty goals. That isn’t to deny that Land of Hope has many beautiful moments and is at times very moving, but it’s shame that it’s such an imperfect whole.