Following Himizu (2011) Sion Sono presents another community and family drama following the aftermath of Japan’s March 2011 earthquake and tsunami. Land of Hope takes a very different approach to its forebear, but is just as believable, showing a range of characters and different perspectives, although never in a way that is over-intellectualised, which makes it all the more engaging. The consequences of the tsunami that had such devastating effects on the country still have deep political and social ramifications, particularly concerning the use of nuclear power following the tragedy at Fukushima. The Land of Hope addresses the issues in a way that is embracing and moving but never melodramatically gruesome.

Yasuhiko Ono (Isao Natsuyagi) owns a herd of dairy cows in Nagashima prefecture next to Oba Town, ‘home of the well known nuclear power plant’, where he lives with his wife Chieko (Naoko Ohtani), who is showing signs of dementia, his son Yoichi (Jun Murakami) and Yoichi’s wife Izumi (Megumi Kagurazaka). A massive earthquake strikes. It’s large even for a country renowned for tremors, and is to have an enormous impact on their lives. The local nuclear power plant is at risk and concerns about its safety are raised, particularly following the aftermath of Fukushima. The authorities commence a massive evacuation plan for residents in Oba. The Ono family home falls just metres outside the 20km zone, marked by poles and yellow tape, and they are not forced to leave, although their neighbours are relocated. Eventually the authorities demand that Yasuhiko and his family should be evacuated from the area. Yoichi and Izumi reluctantly decide to leave and become evacuees in a small city, but Yasuhiko is determined to stay. Yoichi wishes to have the ability to return to his parents if he can, but Izumi becomes pregnant and this raises concerns for their unborn child. The potential for invisible, insidious radiation has devastated home and family life. What can the future hold?

Written and directed by Sion Sono, this is a personal reflection on his concerns about issues raised by the recent Fukushima disaster. ‘I fear that we will simply become desensitised to the idea of radiation… conveniently ‘forgetting’ about it in our daily lives,’ he has stated. His response is The Land of Hope, a film that is balanced in the way that it depicts the issues, but shows clear frustration at the attitudes of both the authorities and communities in this fictional scenario. At its heart this is a deeply human film that addresses the protagonists’ dilemmas in a way that is honest and non-provocative, showing how much of the populace have been ‘forgetting about it in our daily lives’ or how those living in unaffected areas sometimes ridicule those who have had to deal with their enforced situations. The film depicts differing attitudes – from those of the public who don’t really understand the upheaval for those forced to move, to those from the potentially irradiated area and their understandable worries and fears about their situation. Izumi becomes paranoid about radiation to the extent that she purchases an ‘astronaut’ radiation suit that she wears all the time to protect her unborn child, leading to Yoichi suffering contempt from his work colleagues, who all simply think that she’s barking mad.

The results of such a disaster are all too clear in the depiction of landscapes devastated by the earthquake, especially for those who can never go home. In one scene we see two children looking for Beatles records in a shattered landscape, as well as seeking their parents who cannot be found, if indeed any are really alive. Although the film deals with other members of the community, the central focus is on the outcome for Yasuhiko’s family and the traumas that they face. But the radiation is not the only issue Yasuhiko has to deal with. More striking is the way that his wife Chieko (played with such conviction by Naoko Ohtani) and her needs define his actions in more ways than the authorities can enforce their rules. When Chieko wanders off to dance through the restricted zone, bound for a festival of souls that does not exist, it marks a moment in the film that is both deeply emotional and strangely delightful. Yasuhiko’s need to protect those around him stretches beyond his family as he rescues the impounded Peggy the dog from his evacuated neighbour’s house and cannot face the senseless slaughter of his cattle.

Beyond the personal drama The Land of Hope tackles issues of police, politics and social misunderstandings. But this is fundamentally a film about people and how they deal with a ghastly situation. As the director has said, ‘only drama, not a documentary, can convey what I want to tell the audience in this movie’. He achieves a deeply affecting and highly emotional film. Extras include an in depth and compelling 70-minute documentary about the making and background of the project.