Two years after the Fukushima tragedy Sion Sono’s tells the same tragic story in an imaginary place, showing how violence can be invisible…
A man capable of directing such movie as Strange Circus or Suicide Club is a director from who you can’t expect any limits in terms of violence, language or contents: it was not by chance that he directed even more violent movies like Cold Fish, or extreme view on the modern society like the epic Love Exposure. Sion Sono gained a lot of international success at the end of the first decade of the new millennium, and now, according to many people, seems that he has come to a pact with the Japanese film market.
The hybrid Himizu was then born, a mixture of a manga and the tragedy that occurred in Japan on the 11 March of 2011 when Japan was devastated by the earthquake and its nuclear consequences because of the collapse of Fukushima. Straight after this one there was the sexually extreme Guilty of Romance, and then The Land of Hope, an imaginary family drama. Sion Sono’s last effort could be seen as exactly what he has always said he despised in contemporary Japanese cinema: the classic family drama, the legacy of Ozu he used for his own purpose in Be Sure to Share.
As always, if Sono has to play the same game as the others, he has to do it with his own rules. It’s 2013, the same old Japan in a whole new prefecture called Nagashima – a crafty medley of Nagasaki and Fukushima/Hiroshima -, where lies one of the many Nuclear Plants of the Country. One day a strong earthquake hits Nagashima and the Nuclear Plants is seriously damaged. For the Ono family it’s a tragedy: they’re exactly at the border of the 20km dangerous perimeter, everything they have is behind the line of safety, even they’re cattle and farm. A whole life spent working and loving what they had near them suddenly vanished because of the ghost of radioactivity that forces everyone to face a new terrible reality. In this landscape Yasuhiko (Isao Natsuyagi, Warm Water Under a Red Bridge, Curtain Call) and his sick wife Chieko (Naoko Otani, Wild Berries, Dear Friends) decide to keep their existence next to their ancestors trees, while they force their son Yoichi (Jun Murakami, Himizu, Isn’t Anyone Alive?) and his pregnant wife Izumi (Megumi Kagurazaka, Cold Fish, Guilty of Romance) to run away from the danger.
Sion Sono avoids the easy critic the government could have made against him. Just a few times Fukushima is mentioned, but he replicates exactly the same events of that recent tragedy, from the radioactivity to the risk of explosion, even the Tsunami. Hundreds of family left without a home, abandoned in warehouses and schools without any memory of their lives, no objects to remind who they were. Sono tells the story of a broken family, the typical conventional family he has always criticized, but this time seen from another perspective: the Ono family is ready to live its existence as they wish, refusing every imposition from the outside.
It’s not hard to identify the old Yasuhiko with the director himself, master of his own ideas and decisions, made powerful by his ability to rise and express his will, even if sometimes it’s impossible to share his view. Unfortunately The Land of Hope can’t be listed as one of Sono’s best films, but still is an impressive work that hits as a lovely and touching journey to the dramatic side of such a controversial director, a movie drawn with a light and at the same time painful pencil, exactly as the terrible ending in front of which everyone, even those with a tough heart, will shed a tear.
An ending that acquires more strength because of Isao Natsuyagi’s recent departure, whose death, next to his character’s fate, remind the same circumstances that lead to another departure at the beginning of the Seventies, when Edward G. Robinson died both in life and on screen in Soylent Green. Natsuyagi’s last screen apparition is a perfect one, none of his colleagues in The Land of Hope could be compared to him, not even Sono’s habitué actress Megumi Karazaka (Izumi), whose character fell in the radiophobia vortex. It’s a series of unfortunate events, human losses and not, that finds a precise meaning in the final credits, straight after a kind caress addressed at the Land (and not at the Nation), with the announcement of the title: The Land of Hope.
The Land of Hope screened as part of the Terracotta Festival 2013 at the Prince Charles Cinema, and is released on UK Blu-ray and DVD on Monday 26 August by Third Window.
Review originally published 7 June 2013.