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Documenting Disaster in Fukushuma: Review of In The Grey Zone(2012) and A2-B-C (2013)

In Japanese with English subtitles.

Study areas: Nuclear power, disaster, children, environment, Fukushima, Japan

The outlines of the triple disaster of 3.11 are well-known, but much less attention has been paid to the continuing disaster that is known simply both in and outside of Japan as “Fukushima.” In the whole of Fukushima Prefecture, less than 2,000 people lost their lives in the tsunami that swept away whole communities further to the north, but of the 110,000 residents evacuated from the area around the crippled Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power plant most will never return home. Their houses, schools, and workplaces have been polluted with toxic levels of radioactive cesium and strontium that have rendered the area uninhabitable for decades to come. It is the experience of this still unfolding nuclear disaster by local residents in Fukushima Prefecture that is the subject of Ian Thomas Ash’s two documentary films In the Grey Zone (2012) and A2-B-C (2013).

Grey Zone

The first of these documentaries, In the Grey Zone, was filmed over a ten-day period in April 2011. The “grey zone” from which the film takes its title is a ten-kilometer wide area created on 20 March 2011 when the national government declared a twenty-kilometer mandatory exclusion zone around the crippled nuclear power plant and another thirty-kilometer boundary outside of which people were encouraged to go about their normal activities. In the “grey zone” between these boundaries, residents were told to avoid going outside and stay indoors as much as possible. The film begins with a clip from the now famous SOS message posted on YouTube of the mayor of Minamisoma City, which extends across all three zones, appealing for immediate aid to help his community’s dire shortage of food and fuel. The film then cuts to a scene a few weeks later with the director and cameraman driving through Minamisoma to the city hall, passing along the way a post-tsunami landscape of debris, ragged trees, tsunami-ravaged houses, and occasional Japanese Self Defense Force soldiers and vehicles. Following this attention-grabbing introduction, the rest of the film is loosely structured around Ash trying to learn more about the local Board of Education’s decision to open a school for 970 students just outside of the thirty-kilometer boundary. In the process, he visits various places throughout the city, such as homes, farms, bars, a gas station, an evacuation center, and a radiation screening center, where he interviews residents about the opening of the school, living in the grey zone, and their thoughts for the future.


More than with In the Grey Zone, Ash’s A2-B-C is focused on a single issue—the effort of a few women in Date City, Fukushima Prefecture to have their local government and schools take more responsibility for protecting their children and families from radiation. In fact, the film’s title derives from the diagnosis their children have been given for cysts that have developed in their thyroids. The film shows Ash interviewing children and their parents trying make sense of an A1 verses A2 diagnosis and the ensuing suspicion about the government’s pressure on doctors and hospitals to suppress information about the severity of the health risk. Filmed in late 2012, A2-B-C shows how a year-and-half after the earthquake people were trying to return to normal routines, but unable fully to do so because of the intractable problem of radioactive contamination within their community. Early in the film, for example, a scene shows a conversation among several local residents about the emotional and psychological toll the nuclear disaster is continuing to have with reports of higher incidences of abortion, fears about diminished marriage prospects, and the general risk to body and mind of living in a toxic environment.

Timely and personal in quality, these two documentaries are very suitable for class discussion and assignments focused on 3.11, the response of people and government to disaster, and more generally about contemporary Japanese society and culture. Of the two films, the shorter length and more coherent narrative structure of A2-B-C (71 min) makes it more amenable to show as a whole to a class. At 89 minutes, In the Grey Zone may be too long to show in its entirety, but several clips could readily be used, such as those showing children playing with Geiger counters, the different explanations offered by two doctors about the long-term health risks of radiation exposure, and the conversation with men and women in their twenties at a local bar about the future of their families and community. In this sense, the whole of In the Grey Zone is perhaps of greatest value for its role in documenting in intimate detail this mercurial period between the well-known triple disaster and a future when history will likely flatten these individual experiences into a larger national story of destruction and reconstruction.

While the films do not provide a broad social or political background for the Fukushima disaster, their numerous interviews with local residents and administrators offer individual perspectives on this important moment for Japanese society. When combined with articles from Asia-Pacific Journal: Japan Focus or recent books, such as Anne Allison’s Precarious Japan, Richard Samuels’ 3.11: Disaster and Change in Japan, or Brett Walker’s Toxic Archipelago: A History of Industrial Disease in Japan, the individual voices recorded in these films can be used to open discussion on the role of local and national governments in local communities, the place of science and technology in society, and the difficulty of defining environmental risk and health. “It will take the strength of more than just one person,” explains a woman in the last scene of A2-B-C, “I’m taking proof [of radiation levels] and transmitting it outside of Fukushima Prefecture… I’m going out and asking the world for help.” It is this kind of clear and personal perspective—in this instance of an individual realizing the limits of civil society in her community and the need to build broader coalitions for meaningful change—that is the strength of these two documentary films.

Roderick Wilson is an Assistant Professor with a joint appointment in the Department of History and the Department of East Asian Languages and Cultures at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. He has a PhD in East Asian history (1600-2000) from Stanford University. His research focuses on the intersection of people and their local habitats in early modern and modern Japan. He has recently authored “Modern Routes through Old Japan” in Cartographic Japan: A Reader and is completing a book manuscript entitled Turbulent Stream: Reengineering Environmental Relations along the Rivers of Japan, 1750-2000. At the University of Illinois, he offers a variety of courses on the history of Japan, East Asia, science, technology, and the environment.

For more information about A2-B-C, view the documentary website.

Additional information about In the Grey Zone, including media and contact inforation, visit the documentary website.





Last Updated: May 12, 2014

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