Kiki Sugino (left) and her brother Jo Keita (right), the associate producer, sound designer, with Danny Peary.
In the international news this month was the detection of frighteningly high levels of radiation in the groundwater two years after a tsunami and earthquake caused a near meltdown of a nuclear power plant near Fukushima, Japan. I flashed back on one of the best and most topical films of the recent TriBeCa Film Festival, Nobuteru Uchida’s Odayaka, which would be ideal for the Sag Harbor Cinema. The rare Japanese narrative film that is pointedly political, it tells the story of two young women who have strong emotional responses to the crisis in March 2011. Neighbors who have never met, Saeko (rising Japanese star Kiki Sugino), a mother whose husband suddenly walks out, and Yukako (Yukiko Shinohara), who is happily married and would like to have a baby, don’t believe the reports by the media and government that say there is no reason to worry about radiation spreading to Tokyo. They worry about the air and the local fish sold at the groceries. Saeko worries about the safety of her daughter and tells others to take precautions. But when both women speak out, they are greeted with apathy or hostility. It’s a brave, compelling film, quite unlike any other Japanese film that has played in America and well worth seeking out. Before I saw Odayaka at the festival, I did this brief interview with Kiki Sugino, who coproduced the film as well as appearing in it.
Danny Peary: You were born in Hiroshima, so I imagine you have thought about radiation all your life.
Kiki Sugino: That’s true. Every child learns about it in school. It’s called Peace Education in Hiroshima, and then I felt I was almost forced to learn about it. But I now realize that it’s very important to learn about it, for my grandmother.
DP: So when the deadly tsunami and earthquake happened in 2011 and the Daiichi power plant near Fukushima started leaking radiation and there was danger of a meltdown, did what you learned in school come to your mind?
KS: Yes, although I was not in Tokyo, where I live and the film takes place. I was in Osaka, Seoul and Hong Kong from 11th to the 23rd of March at film festivals. So I was away for almost two weeks, but I was being told what was happening.
DP: Were you worried about people back home?
KS: Of course. But when I was away from Japan, I saw a gap between what was being said by the Japanese media and the international media.
DP: In what way?
KS: The Japanese media announced that everything at the nuclear plant was under control and there was little reason to worry about radiation outside the area. And the government said repeatedly that the current level of radiation had no immediate impact on health.
DP: Deliberately providing wrong information to the public.
KS: Right. The foreign media was more accurate about the radiation leaking into the atmosphere and the need for more evacuation. The government and Japanese media had a strategy for not scaring the people.
DP: How did you get involved with the movie?
KS: I was offered the film by the director, Nobuteru Uchida. I was given a one-page synopsis. I liked his concept very much and thought it was very necessary film to make at this time. They’re making documentaries about what happened but it’s important to have a narrative film on this subject so many people will see it. I’m an actress and I live in Tokyo, so I wanted to make it personal.
DP: Do you identify with your character, Saeko?
KS: It’s mixed. I could relate to her in some ways but in others she is very different. She has a kid and her husband leaves her and wants a divorce. So she is the only one to care of her daughter when the earthquake happens and the radiation spreads to Tokyo.
DP: Do you see this movie as a cautionary tale, a warning to people, or an angry expose against the government for not telling people their health is at risk?
KS: It covers it all. But I’d say most of all it is a strong warning about a potential problem.
DP: Is the potential problem a future nuclear plant leakage caused by earthquakes? Or is it high levels of radiation found in the groundwater?
KS: This film deals with the leakage at the nuclear plan and radiation. We understand this problem can happen anywhere, not only Japan. You can change the country and the dates. But the potential problem is not only the radiation itself but some people’s aggressive attitude when they can’t accept other people’s choices and decisions. That causes discrimination, as you see in the film. A lot of people were discriminated against just because they were afraid of radiation spreading in Japan. My character tries to speak out and she is threatened by other people who think she’s spreading paranoia when the media is saying there is nothing to worry about.
DP: So in Japan people who speak out about the dangers of radiation from faulty nuclear power plants are criticized and harassed?
KS: Sometimes in Japan when you do something different from others, you’re like a nail that sticks out and gets hammered down. The basis of the story in the movie is radiation but it’s a metaphor about discrimination. There are some people who say we are safe in Japan from radiation and others who say we’re in danger. And they’re yelling at each other. This is the beginning of the war.
DP: Do you think you’re going to get negative feedback in Japan because of this movie?
KS: I thought about that during the process of making this film. It was very difficult to finance because the topic isn’t very popular. But once it’s out, there will be more people who sympathize with what we’re saying.
DP: How do you like being at the TriBeCa Film Festival? Is this a good audience for your movie?
KS: Yeah. I am so happy to be here. New Yorkers understand because 9/11 is related to 3/11, the date of the earthquake in Japan. It’s different presenting the film here because in Japanese society an artist can’t make political statements. If we make a political statement about radiation, they’ll tear us down.
DP: How would you define the word Odayaka and explain why that is the title?
KS: I want people to consider where the title* comes from. Odayaka means “calm” or “tranquil” in Japanese. After 3/11, people in the world admired the quiet Japanese. The Japanese pretend that nothing happened, and that’s not good. The title is used with irony.
*To further understand the film’s title,I asked Japanese film critic Nobuhiro Hosoki for his interpreation. He replied: “Odayaka means serenity but of course that’s not how the situation was after the earthquake. The title is meant to make people consider others who live far away and were affected most by the tsunami, earthquake and the radiation. I don’t know if this explanation makes sense to anyone but the Japanese, but that’s what it means. I don’t think people who live in Tokyo feel safe or serene, it’s actually quite the opposite; but their reaction pretty much follows what TV, newspapers, or neighbors say. People in Japan are often easily swayed by other people’s reactions. How should the mothers at the preschool react when the two women warn them of contamination? How should we react? There’s no right or wrong answer, but the film’s title asks us to just consider the value of life.”