Shot a few months after the triple disaster that hit Japan’s Eastern Pacific Coast in March 2011 – an earthquake followed by a tsunami and core meltdowns in three reactors at the nuclear power plant in the Fukushima Prefecture – Sion Sono’s The Land of Hope (Kibo no kuni, Japan, 2012) addresses a great variety of issues and criticizes the attitude of the government and the media towards these dramatic events.
The central characters are the Onos, a family of dairy and vegetable farmers – the elderly father Yasuhiko (Isao Natsuyagi), his wife Chieko (Naoko Otani), their son Yoichi (Jun Murakami), and their daughter-in-law Izumi (Megumi Kagurazaka). The film is set in the fictitious Nagashima Prefecture, a name that is clearly a reference to Nagasaki and Hiroshima, the cities destroyed by atomic bombs, and to Fukushima. Just as what really happened in March 2011, destruction hits the area around the film’s nuclear power plant (and where the protagonists live) when an earthquake and a tsunami trigger a nuclear explosion.
Focusing on the nuclear disaster, Sono highlights the man-made nature of this catastrophe and the invisible threat of radioactivity, a threat to which the characters react in different and contradictory ways. Rather than exploring Sono’s approach to these reactions, this article emphasizes the relationship between humans and nature, a topic that is addressed in the film in terms of narration and iconography and is an underlying theme implied in numerous scenes.
Sono multiplies images of the coast devastated by the tsunami and the abandoned town in which the nuclear power plant is located and where dogs, cows, goats and other domestic animals wander around in the ruins. Similar images of destruction feature in Himizu (Japan, 2011), which Sono shot in the region affected and in the immediate aftermath of the Fukushima catastrophe. Such images are also evoked in several sequences of his science fiction film The Whispering Star, released in 2015.
However, it is not the physical destruction signalled by buildings in ruins that Sono is interested in but the invisible threat of radiation, which affects body and mind and unfolds over time. The Land of Hope depicts the climate of fear and insecurity that the film’s protagonists have to cope with. The long opening sequence shows the Ono family working together happily and in harmony with their environment. They work hard and lead a peaceful life, as also suggested by shots of fields under a blue sky. Others show Yasuhiko looking after his cows and talking to them as if they were his friends, and the family chatting and laughing over lunch.
When two government employees try to persuade Yasuhiko to leave his farm, he explains his attachment to his home and his close relationship to nature. Pointing to a row of trees, he tells the two men that one of them was planted by his father and that he and his wife planted one of the others when they married, the tree set in the middle of the flowerbed in which Chieko is frequently shown working. The elderly farmer adds vehemently: “They’re all alive. They live here. They are precious to us. (…). They’re our heirloom. (…) It’s a mark that proves our existence” and, visibly worried, asks: “Has radiation killed them?”
Before the Onos receive their evacuation order, their farm is declared part of a border zone. A government decree has established a radiation area with a 20-kilometre radius around the nuclear power plant that leaves the Onos’ farmhouse just outside the mandatory evacuation zone. Their neighbours, the Suzukis, live only a few metres away but their house is inside the zone officially declared contaminated. The Suzukis are therefore evacuated while the Onos are initially allowed to stay.
Sono targets the government decisions as arbitrary and ultimately absurd. The bird’s-eye shot of a barrier crossing empty fields and roads presents the rural landscape as one in which unity and harmony have been destroyed, and here the film recalls the situation in March 2011 when the people living in the area close to the nuclear power plant were informed about the threat of radioactivity threat with considerable delay. Focusing on the man-made disaster, The Land of Hope criticizes the misconceptions about a nuclear catastrophe, in particular the arrogance with which some people assume that they can control its effect on the environment. Yasuhiko has more foresight than the authorities when, shortly after the earthquake, he expresses his fear that the power plant may have been affected. Later, he and a few other characters give vent to their profound mistrust of the government, a view that is entirely justified considering that the authorities keep telling lies.
Izumi is the other character who reacts strongly to the radioactive threat. She and her husband have been urged by Yasuhiko to move to a town some distance from the damaged power plant. Pregnant and becoming increasingly aware of danger that radiation represents, Izumi feels uneasy about buying the vegetables from her home region on display in the supermarket. Like many Japanese in the aftermath of the Fukushima meltdown, she is worried that her food could be contaminated. However, she resorts to much more drastic measures to protect herself and her unborn baby, transforming the apartment in which she and her husband now live into a security bubble lined with plastic. Wearing protective clothing that covers her from top to toe, she becomes an object of ridicule among her fellow citizens. Their lack of understanding is the attitude of conformists who believe the reassuring messages of the media that support the authorities’ desire to create a climate of normality and security. Izumi’s gynaecologist considers the young woman’s behaviour irrational, his attitude recalling the castigation of anti-nuclear protesters in Japan in 2011 – many of them women – whose views were dismissed as hysteria.
In dealing with vulnerability and the absurdity behind so-called normality, Sono makes particular use of space and the human figure in the wide and long stretch of devastated coastal landscape. The loneliness of the characters is revealed in general shots in which humans are tiny figures in a landscape littered with debris. During the shooting, Sono was surprised by a snowfall which explains the difference between the landscape shots and those of the farm. Although the sequences are supposed to be set at the same time and in nearby locations, the weather at the farm seems much warmer than in the nearby abandoned town and the coastal landscape under a white blanket of snow. This contrast heightens the feeling of an almost surreal world of devastation and emphasizes the fragility of human existence, also implying that reason and logic cannot explain everything that has happened, which is what the authorities and the gynaecologist want to make people believe.
A reference to the supernatural is introduced in the sequence in which the adolescents Mitsuru Suzuki (Yutaka Shimizu) – the neighbour’s son – and his girlfriend Yoko (Hikari Kajiwara) meet two children in the ruins of destroyed houses, figures that appear and disappear like ghosts, increasing the feeling of uneasiness and instability evoked by the eerie townscape and also creating a strong link to the theme of death. In a later sequence, Chieko, who suffers from Alzheimer’s disease, has left her home dressed in her best kimono and dances in the snow-covered streets of the abandoned town – now truly a ghost town. She is celebrating the festival of Obon, which honours the spirits of ancestors and is held in August. There is complete silence in these shots, heightening the contrast between Chieko’s child-like joy and the destruction surrounding her.
Death is evoked very early in the film. In one of the first sequences, the colour images briefly fade to black and white photography, suggesting that the nuclear power plant was hit by the tsunami at that very moment. In a later sequence, Yasuhiko’s reflection in a puddle of water after he has killed his cattle serves as another link to the theme of death, and it prefigures his own tragic end. The last images at the farm after he has shot his wife and then himself in the flowerbed are those of the tree the couple once planted and which is now burning.
Engulfed in flames, it signals the destruction of memory and of these two people, their existence eradicated by the nuclear disaster. However, this symbolism is ambivalent, as in Japanese culture fire is also connected with positive values such as purity and energy and is used during the festival of Obon to welcome and bid farewell to the spirits of ancestors. And the film’s ending is no less ambivalent. On several occasions, Chieko has expressed a wish to go home. Her request is a symptom of her illness but also a symbol of the loss of their homes that the protagonists are forced to endure and of the fact that mankind cannot easily escape the invisible danger of radiation, something that Yoichi Ono understands when he arrives at a sunny beach even farther away from his former home than the place where he and Izumi are first moved to. Even here at the beach, the level of caesium can be detected.
The Adagio from Gustav Mahler’ 10th symphony accompanies the sequence of the double suicide of Yasuhiko and Chieko and is heard again in the final sequence showing Mitsuru and Yoko, and both these sequences combine symbols of life and death. The two adolescents walk along behind each other through the snow-covered ruins by the sea, Yoko continually chanting: “One step, one step…”. The images at this point do indeed suggest a land of hope but seem to predict a slow recovery that requires a reconsideration of our attitude towards our environment that takes into account the dangers of technology and shows more respect for nature.