Review by William J. Hammon, Creator of I Actually Paid to See This blog
It has been almost nine years since the tsunami and nuclear disaster in Fukushima, Japan that displaced countless citizens and irradiated much of the surrounding area. Since then, numerous reconstruction and decontamination projects have been undertaken in an attempt to restore the region. But as the ninth anniversary approaches, director Ryo Saitani takes his government to task in a poignant, yet delightfully absurd satire on bureaucracy.
Nipponia Nippon – Fukushima Rhapsody is a strong test of the old axiom that Comedy = Tragedy + Time. Set in the midst of the cleanup efforts, Saitani dares the audience to laugh and sing while surrounded by reminders of Japan’s worst nuclear fallout since the end of World War II, by presenting an exaggerated, almost festively ironic tale intentionally designed to play to a childlike mentality. In Saitani’s world, this is what the government and the for-profit nuclear energy industry thinks of the common people.
Combining animation with live action, the film opens with an absolute assault on the senses in the form of a bright, loud, and boisterous opening number created via stop-motion with various talismans, discs, and tribal masks. The song speaks of a king who loved fleas, so much so that he bred them in his castle, to the point that they infected the entire kingdom. Once you get past the seering, aggressive piece, it becomes basically the thesis statement for the entire film. How can the ruling class best appease the blood-sucking fleas while keeping the working class in line?
When the film begins in earnest, the story focuses mainly on Kokuhei Kusonoki, played by Daisuke Ryu. A middle-aged widower and mid-level bureaucrat, he is transferred to a small town in Fukushima to take over the prefecture’s dedicated Public Relations department for the rebuilding effort. As his supervisor, Mr. Murai (Minori Terada) shows him around the area, including all the places where it is impossible for people to ever return, the normally stoic Kusonoki becomes alternately social and jaded, as he quickly learns that more effort is being put into selling the idea of Fukushima’s recovery, rather than actually facilitating it.
Back home, the B-story revolves around Kusonoki’s daughter-in-law (herself a widow after Kusonoki’s son, Ichiro died in a car crash), Haruka, played by Miri De Cuoto. A doctor at a children’s hospital, she spends most of her days playfully tending to children who are still recovering from radiation exposure, particularly a young man named Yu, who has a friend that may or may not be imaginary.
Throughout both plots, the presentation is the same. No matter how heavy the material being presented, it’s always given in the form of playful songs and animation (which vary in style from stop-motion to cell-shaded to claymation; basically everything except traditional anime and 3D CGI). When Kusonoki meets his PR team, they introduce themselves as if they’re characters on a children’s television show. When a member of the team suggests turning the Fukushima nuclear plant into a tourist attraction, the action cuts to a fantasy scene where everyone rides in a double-decker bus as buildings playfully explode around them. There’s even a great bit of dueling motifs as Haruka leads her ward’s children in a song about rabbits paired with a cartoon from the perspective of Kusonoki’s biological daughter where a rabbit tricks crocodiles into helping him cross the sea as a means of skirting her duties at work.
That’s the key satirical point that Saitani makes with this film. If the government treats people like children, most will march in lockstep like children rather than think critically. You can literally raise the “acceptable” limits of radiation exposure to 20 times the previous limit in order to get residents to move back to their homes if you pay them off with token reparations and flashy programs and songs to reinforce their loyalty. Imagine if BP had created “Baby Shark” as a means to whitewash the Deepwater Horizon incident. That’s what we’re going for here.
And still, the film does take time to develop the characters so that pathos can be earned. In the midst of all the goofy animation and catchy songs, there’s an underlying melancholy with Kusonoki and Haruka and how they deal with loss. Their tragedy is not connected to Fukushima, but the coping mechanisms are the same. A scene where the two sing longfully for the lost Ichiro has just as much emotional resonance as an old woman talking to the animated skeletons of lost soldiers, and that’s a good thing.
The film can be hard to follow at times, mostly due to the intentionally disjointed nature of the plot and the musical/animated elements. In keeping with the elitist oeuvre of the corporate and governmental powers that be, the film plays like the audience has the attention span of a small child, jumping back and forth between storylines seemingly at random. But at the same time, Saitani never misses an opportunity to give the audience hope that a few good-hearted people can truly make a difference. Nipponia Nippon is at times manic, but in its best moments – like young Yu making an origami crane for Midori that is invisibly held in mid-air – it approaches magical.