Running time: 102 min.
Reviewed by Nicholas Vroman
Toshifumi Fujiwara’s “No Man’s Zone” begins with the image of a tree standing alone amidst the rubble and detritus left by the earthquake and tsunami of March 11, 2011. It’s still graceful in its battered and wind-beaten shape. It could be an exemplary example of bonsai. The camera slowly pans a full 360 degrees across the wasted landscape. Trash, detritus, the remains of buildings and boats move by as a woman’s voice (Arsinée Khanjian) speaks of the disaster, how the images of disaster are difficult to digest, yet how we as viewers’ become addicted to images of destruction. As the camera comes full circle to settle back on the tree she asks if we noticed the smokestacks of the Fukushima Nuclear Plan, as they passed by in the background. Like most every one in the audience at its Tokyo Filmex premier, I didn’t.
Thus begins Fujiwara’s Marker-esque exploration of the fact and the legacy of 3.11. His journey takes him within the 50 kilometer no man’s zone surrounding the crippled and leaking Fukushima Nuclear plant. The journey is not merely the usual disaster sightseeing trip, but a serious questioning of how it was and is being mediated, along with a healthy dose of asides and commentary, interviews with a handful of holdouts living with the zone and scenes of destruction countered with things like blooming cherry trees and flowers. For a film about one of the major disasters that ever hit Japan, it’s surprisingly beautiful.
Fujiwara takes on the role of the Stalker, leading us into the Zone. Tarkovsky was prescient! Whether this place will become the place where our desires will be fulfilled – only time will tell. Our darkest most troubled ones maybe. This may be where his insistence on his idea of our addiction to images of destruction lies. He offers up plenty. But he counters them with even more of images of spring reviving and taking back the landscape. And perhaps most importantly Fujiwara attempts to film the unfilmable.
First off there’s the officially unfilmable – going into the off-limits area to capture the wreckage, the empty streets, the cows and dogs and cats left behind, the last human holdouts of the towns of Ukedo and Iitate. This may be the easiest part. Scores of people have made the trip into the zone to rescue abandoned animals, take photos and film or just to gawk at the place.
Then there’s filming the invisible radiation. Truly unfilmable, the invisible particles that have traveled through the air and contaminated the soil and water have already left their long lasting mark. Fujiwara shows fields and forest, on the surface quite lovely, but now holding an invisible malignancy that requires an urgent but basically impossible effort to remove. His interviewees acknowledge this truth as they prepare for their forced evacuations from family homes.
And the last unfilmable thing is what will become of the Zone itself. As it becomes more an more apparent that the damage from the nuclear plant is uncontainable, the zone will certainly become a No Man’s Zone, left to lie fallow for generations. Fujiwara has made the effort to document this place in all its beauty and ruination because it may be one of the last times we will ever be able to see it, before it’s completely off-limits. The images of the film become the zone’s final legacy.
Fujiwara spends most of the duration of the film traveling from the small town of Ukedo to Iitate. Ukedo seems harder hit by the tsunami. As we travel down haunted and abandoned streets, a few sightings of cars with relief workers and police, images and stories of tragedies – a grandmother being swept out to sea – develop into a critique of how the tragedy was handled – how long it took to respond - and ultimately, a critique of how the whole thing was mediated. Fujiwara hopes to correct those impressions, not only by proffering a new set of images, but by questioning the meaning or unmeaning of the saturation of images proffered by the media.
His specific critique of how NHK mediated the event rings a little false in that NHK, with its vast resources, has actually done a better job than most indie filmmakers on documenting the destruction and reconstruction of Tohoku. One can and must question the ideology of a government news organization where (in Japan in particular) the coziness of the players public and private is appalling. But, there are a number of independent producers working for NHK who have been active in trying to fairly view and assess the legacy of 3.11.
Secondly, he manages to not illustrate his own movie with examples of the images that have offended him so. The viewer is left questioning, “What are these images that are so bad?”
And thirdly there are some iconic and auteur-less images from keitais and surveillance cameras that have been seared onto the world’s retina. The wall of the tsunami crossing the highway. The shot from a hill where we see the sluggish and forceful water swirling and sweeping up house after house. These two come to mind.
The recurring voice over of our addiction to images of destruction may also be more of a personal reflection on the part of Fujiwara. Endless loops of falling towers or tracking shots through kilometer after kilometer of leveled towns may be less about the viewers’’ addiction and more about the media’s role as a pusher. Are we addicted? Or are we ultimately beaten by images into being overwhelmed and ultimately inured to the meaning of these images?
“No Man’s Zone,” at least, represents a beginning. There are a number of lesser documentaries coming out now on 3.11 that even in their well-meaning shovel up endless clichés and hours of numbing footage of the disaster. Fujiwara questions it all. His answers, at times, may seem a bit too pat, but he’s going in the right direction. What are most powerful of No Man’s Land remain the images of nature’s healing and rebirth, even tainted by the invisible poison left by man. The final, somewhat mundane image of a tree takes on a new meaning in Fujiwara’s hands – something akin to hope, leavened with frightful knowledge and the weight of recent history.