Wednesday, 16 March 2011

Thoughts on cinema and radiation and the disasters in Japan

Our fear of nuclear power seems to go deep. Or rather, our fear of radiation. It is sometimes irrational, and often based on misconceptions and misunderstandings. But it is there, and even though there has been only one horrible accident, Chernobyl, the fear of another like it is often on people's minds when nuclear power is discussed. The shock of Chernobyl has perhaps forever altered our perception of nuclear power in general, at least among those that were old enough at the time to see the news flashes. (For a recent assessment of Chernobyl, see the website of UNSCEAR (United Nations Scientific Committee on the Effects of Atomic Radiation) here.)

Films have long been expressing our fears of both the bomb and nuclear power. New York Times had an article yesterday about the Japanese films about the monster Godzilla, and the message of those films. The first of those films, Godzilla (Gojira) came out 1954, and dealt both with the atomic bomb released over Hiroshima and Nagasaki, but also the nuclear tests at the Bikini atoll that the Americans made in the 1940s and 1950s (that's where the name of the bathing costume comes from). It's a surprisingly powerful film, and much different from the American version from 1998. But all over the world, films were made about this fear. Bergman's The Seventh Seal (Det sjunde inseglet 1957) has sometimes been seen as an allegory about the fear of the bomb. More directly outspoken is his later film Winter Light (Nattvardsgasterna 1962). In France, Alain Renais made Hiroshima mon amour in 1959. In the US all sorts of films, but primarily horror films and film noirs, were made with an atomic subtext. Even before Godzilla came out, Gordon Douglas directed the low key and eerie horror film Them!, about ants that had been exposed to the fallout of a nuclear test in New Mexico, and grown extraordinary large. What's remarkable about it is how realistic it is, in its settings and tone, and that it has a Foucault-like view of those that society lock up as criminals and mentally unsound (or crazy).

Another example is the nihilistic noir Kiss Me Deadly (1955), with an apocalyptic ending. Pay particular attention to the sound effects. The radiating light in the box sounds like a monster, it's definitely something that is alive:


On the Beach (1959), set in Australia, about a group of people waiting for the nuclear cloud that has killed the rest of the world, is another example. A later example, and more fitting for the present crisis, is The China Syndrome (1979) about an accident at a nuclear power station. Here Jack Lemmon is playing the manager of the station, desperately trying to control a potential meltdown. The strange thing about the film is that it was released just days before the real accident at Three Mile Island power station, near Harrisburg, until now the world's second most dangerous nuclear accident.

But to return to Japan. In 1989, Shohei Imamura made Black Rain (Kuroi Ame), about the after effects of the bombings of Hiroshima. The following year Akira Kurosawa wrestled with his own fears of radiation, and nuclear power. In one of his 'dreams' from his late film Dreams (Yume 1990), Mount Fuji turns red, after a nuclear accident. It's yet another apocalyptic imagining of the horrible effects:


With the increasing fears of a disaster in Japan, the ghost of accidents past are back to haunt the world. Although scientists assures us that it won't be as bad as Chernobyl, even in a worst-case scenario, that is not much of a consolation since even something half as bad would be unspeakable enough. What would that do to Japan? A headline in a newspaper the other day said "Japan is fighting for its life", and even though it first sounded very much exaggerated, now I'm not so sure anymore. Japan will eventually prevail, but at what cost? Whatever happens at Fukushima now, the combination of the earthquakes, the tsunami, and the complete breakdown of so many nuclear power plants is enough to make the most resilient country go down on its knees. I hope that all of those that I have met there are safe.

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