Japanese: 希望 の 国
Romaji: Kibou no Kuni
Release Date: October 20th, 2012 (Japan)
UK Release Date: August 26th, 2013
UK Distributor: Third Window Films
Running Time: 133 mins.
Director: Sion Sono
Writer: Sion Sono
Starring: Isao Natsuyagi, Naoko Otani, Jun Murakami, Megumi Kagurazaka, Yutaka Shimizu, Hikari Kajiwara, Denden, Mariko Tsutsui, Yusuke Iseya, Mitsuru Fukikoshi,
When Sion Sono’s last film Himizu came to its stunning open ending it was clear that he was far from finished addressing the issues surrounding the Tōhoku Earthquake and Tusnami. The Land of Hope is the powerful and important follow-up which is epic in scale and drama. For daring to take on such a taboo subject in Japan, Sono had to go to foreign investors but what has resulted is a film that is a key way of seeing the effects of a disaster. At two hours it captures all sorts of aspects about the disaster but remains incredibly humane as it centres on the travails of two families.
An old couple named Yasuhiko and Chieko Ono (Natsuyagi and Otani) live on a farm with their son Yoichi (Murakami) and his wife Izumi (Kagurazaka) near Ohara town in Nagashima prefecture.
It is a peaceful place whose only claim to fame is the nearby Nagashima Daiichi nuclear power plant. Yasuhiko’s days are spent farming land owned by his family for generations, taking care of Chieko who suffers dementia and talking with the neighbouring Suzuki family made up of father Ken (Denden), mother Meiko (Tsutsui), son Mitsuru (Shimizu) and his girlfriend Yoko (Kajiwara).
When an earthquake and tsunami strike Nagashima prefecture the nuclear power plant goes into meltdown and residents of Ohara town are forced to evacuate by the government as a mandatory evacuation zone stretching twenty kilometres from the plant is put into effect.
The situation for the Ono family is different. Only half of their farm lies in the evacuation zone and the rest is outside it.
They are faced with a tough decision: evacuate with the rest of the village and the Suzuki family or stay on the farm. For Yasuhiko the choice is simple. Yoichi and his wife should evacuate while he and Chieko remain but Yoichi wants to keep the family together while Izumi is beset by worries over radiation.
Meanwhile the Ono family must find out what happened to relatives in the disaster area.
The Land of Hope is a film which leaves behind all of the familiar Sono horror film hallmarks: labyrinthine plot, ambiguity, dense visual imagery, crazy characters and gore. It is a simple and direct film based in reality. It is more like an example of social filmmaking which generates a heavy sense of anxiety by placing us in the March 11th disaster and depicting the emotions and feelings of people who lived with the consequences.
Against the very real background of a disaster, a smaller family one involving the break-up of the household plays out. The story is inspired by a real-life family who Sono encountered during repeated trips to Fukushima prefecture while location scouting.
Sono has been very deliberate in everything included in the film. It starts with the script. It may take place in the near future in the fictional Nagashima (the name of which is a combination of three cities affected by nuclear radiation: Nagasaki, Hiroshima and Fukushima) but everything is drawn from reality. We witness the chaos of evacuation, finding the missing, and the devastation wrought by both the tsunami and nuclear disaster. Characters affected by the disaster range from those forced to evacuate to celebrities in Tokyo urging people to forget about the crisis and smile to paranoid housewives who fear radiation and those who level discrimination at people associated with the disaster.
The large amount of issues covered in the script is almost bewildering and it takes time to warm up to the story (it took me two viewings to fully get into it) but Sono’s choice to deliver everything at a stately pace with a simple plot split between different characters ensures everything is given the time to be explored and the emotions involved are examined. What makes Sono’s approach work is because through his humane script we care about the people. The actors are given a platform to issue stunning performances full of emotions, none more impressive than the one given by the late Isao Natsuyagi as Yasuhiko who passed away earlier this year.
With his lined but warm face and his simple and honest demeanour he exudes goodness as he a proud and fierce patriarch who looks after his family. We sympathise with him as he accepts his losses and in his steadfastness. His relationship with Jun Murakami as Yoichi is strong as the two face off in a father–son relationship where loyalty and love are the dominant emotions but it is with Otani where the most sympathy is evoked.
Otani as the mother Chieko radiates such innocence that the film is heart-breaking at points. Her faulty memory keeps flashing back to happier times. What might drive others crazy brings a patient and fond smile to Yasuhiko which makes us sympathise more.
It would have been easy to make an anti-nuclear diatribe but Sono steers clear from making a film too concerned about issues that it forgets about people. The anti-nuclear camp is shown to be earnest, made up of a mixture of survivors from real-life Fukushima who lament all the missteps that the Japanese government took with them, doctors who present startling facts in quieter moments but there are nods to hysteria that can come about. The film is more incisive when it needles the media reaction to the disaster as we see how mainstream television urges audiences to forget about the disaster, calling on people to just follow the group mentality and not worry others. The critique is sharp because we are aware of the plight of the refugees who huddle in schools.
Indeed all of the characters exhibit a degree of humanity, good and bad. Even government workers on the front-lines show sympathy. These very real human emotions and thoughts extend throughout the cast so the audience can always empathise and understand the issues better.
Visually and aurally, Sono is also masterful at creating atmosphere. The Land of Hope, like Himizu, was shot on locations actually affected by the 3.11 disaster like Ishinomaki. We are embedded in the situation of the victims because of directing techniques and the way scenes are orchestrated. Long takes and long shots capture the desolation and the lonely figures the actors cut against such wide open spaces.
Then there are sequences involving Mitsuru and Yoko walking through streets where the tsunami wrought huge devastation.
We see the apartment blocks with curtains waving balefully in the air, the skeleton foundations of buildings, wrecked house uprooted, and debris strewn everywhere. Sono even shot in Fukushima which is where some of the most stunning where everything is intact but life has been sucked away.
The initial evacuation is a breathless and confusing sequence as we witness cordons set by police and military personnel who constantly march about refusing to answer questions to a soundtrack of rumbling, squawking radios, people on loud speakers and shouting, the ticking of Geiger counters. It is all disorientating and as an audience member I almost felt like the people who were forced out with no satisfactory explanation and at the end I felt all of the uncertainty and hope that Yoichi and Izumi felt.
Overall this film came across as a masterful analysis of the Great East Japan Earthquake and Tsunami. Evocative, beautiful and haunting visuals layer a script which dares to point out the faults in society.
A beautiful coruscating cloud of criticism capturing the ineptitude and absurdity of the government response and the uncaring nature of public consciousness as it chooses to forget about the disaster. The Land of Hope is a timely reminder that the disaster is still on-going as it slips away from news headlines. Unlike many other films that deal with March 11th, this is one which dares to shake its audience as it interrogates our response to the disaster. It is like an aberration in Japanese cinema, a film that is a bruising reminder that all is not well. It is an important and powerful film that grants us a level of understanding of the disaster and its human cost.
The main review has gone on long enough. If you got down this far, thanks and well done!
The extras on the DVD include a weblink and trailer but the real treasure is a one hour documentary which shows everything from the making of the film from pre to post-production and screenings for people affected by the disaster. We see who the Ono family were based on and their house, locations from the disaster area that Sono travels to and how he works with his professional and non-professional crew such as the actors and victims of the disaster who agreed to be extras. Like Himizu and The Land of Hope, it is an important document showing us what the areas are like since these areas are changing with the recovery efforts. More importantly we see how people feel about the issues explored in a film about them and how deeply Sono was moved by the whole experience (we get some of his poetry!) of making the film and the ideals he brings to the table. There is no need for director interviews or anything like that because it’s all in the documentary.