After completing work on his famed ‘Hate Trilogy’ - Guilty of Romance, Cold Fish and Love Exposure respectively - prolific Japanese director Sion Sono sought refuge in the arms of moving drama. The Land of Hope is a haunting tale that depicts a family's struggle to survive the aftermath of the Tohoku earthquake and the resulting nuclear crisis. Though based on fact, the film is set in the fictional Nagashima prefecture. The name Nagashima comes from a combination of Fukushima, Nagasaki and Hiroshima - three Japanese cities affected by nuclear incidents.
It was on Friday, 11th March 2011 that the Great East Japan Earthquake took place, followed by a tsunami that ripped through the heart and hearts of the Hamadori region. Thousands of lives were lost, and in the aftermath of the disaster the outer housings of two of the six reactors at the Fukushima Nuclear Power Plant in Okuma exploded. A large evacuation zone was created around the site, and it's here that Sono sought inspiration for his next project.
On a visit to the area Sono discovered two houses, both yards and worlds apart. One house was inside the exclusion zone, while the other was just outside. Sono had intended to make a film about the hardships faced by a family inside the exclusion zone, but after visiting the family that lived in the other house, he realised just how much it affected - and is still affecting - those on the outside as well.
Yoichi Ono (Jun Murakami) lives with his wife Izumi (Megumi Kagurazaka), and his parents Yasuhiko (Isao Natsuyagi) and Chieko (Naoko Otani) on the family's small farm. One day, an earthquake disrupts the calm, causing the reactor at a nearby nuclear power plant to explode. The Nagashima community is within the twenty-kilometre evacuation zone created after the reactor exploded, all except the Ono farm. The Ono's are faced with an agonising decision; stay and risk the possibility of radiation poisoning, or leave the home their family has spent generations building.
To this day the nuclear incident is a taboo subject in Japan, but with The Land of Hope, Sono hoped to remind the world of the devastation it caused. Afraid that people will become desensitized by the idea of radiation - living alongside it if you will - TLOH was designed to act as a permanent reminder of what took place. Sono made a conscious decision to set TLOH in the near future, so that audiences could experience the mistake we might yet make again. His hope is that we'll learn from it, changing the course of future events as we go. All this from the man who revelled in the misogyny of Cold Fish; Sion Sono could never be accused of lacking versatility.
He could never be accused of short-changing us either. Both Cold Fish and Guilty of Romance beat their drums - and their women - to the tune of two hours, eclipsed by the weight of Sono's finest work; Love Exposure spread its wings for a captivating 3 hours 57 minutes. The Land of Hope clocks in at a leisurely 2 hours 13 minutes. It's not an easy watch by any stretch of the imagination, but the characters are endearing and the imagery is at times sublime, particularly the scenes filmed from within the exclusion zone. There's a beautiful, yet tragic scene involving two children discovered amongst the ruins. Sono litters his picture with memorable images throughout, and as a result, The Land of Hope is his most assured movie to date.
Performances are universally strong, but special mention goes to Megumi Kagurazaka as the circumspect mother-to-be, and the late great Isao Natsuyagi, who passed away in May of this year. Izumi finds out she is pregnant shortly after moving away from the exclusion zone, and she takes every precaution she can to prevent harm from befalling her unborn child. The locals think she's crazy, pouring scorn on both her and her husband, and Sono makes an interesting point about the resentment heaped upon those that choose not to forget. Yoichi accuses one of the haters of "following the others through a red light". Just one of the many indictments made in a film that holds no prisoners.
A second story runs alongside the main thrust of the plot; a young couple set out on a quest to reunite the girl with her desolate hometown. It could be argued that this subplot is surplus to requirements, but in Sono's defence, their quest does bring with it the most striking imagery of the movie. Two hours in the company of The Land of Hope can be a little gruelling at times, but the end result is both memorable and worthwhile. Sono aimed to get a lot off his chest with this movie, and he's managed to do it in a non-preachy, entertaining and informative way.
A generation which ignores history has no past and no future. The Land of Hope is a beautiful picture at times, leisurely paced but memorable all the same. Tragic and haunting, sweet and uplifting, Sion Sono has more or less achieved what he set out to do. Can't wait to see where he goes from here, and we'll be following him, one step at a time. AW