“I can’t let TEPCO ruin my life” the heroine of Kyoko Miyake’s personal documentary My Atomic Aunt (波の向こう, Nami no Mukou) eventually asserts, explaining that when you have no more tears to cry then you become defiant. Having lived in London for 10 years prior to filming the documentary, a lack of defiance was something that had initially interested Miyake, wondering if she’d simply been away too long no longer understanding why everyone in her family’s hometown of Namie in Fukushima continued to refer to the Tokyo Electric Power Company in such affectionate terms. Then again, as her aunt Kuniko points out before losing her patience, “anger won’t get us anywhere”.
Returning to Japan soon after the 2011 earthquake and tsunami, Miyake details her own relationship with Namie, rendered uninhabitable after the Fukushima nuclear disaster, during her opening voiceover describing it as a warm and nostalgic place marked by a sense of rural tranquility. Nevertheless through making the documentary she comes to question both herself and the town, wondering why it was that people were so keen to have the plant come when the prevailing wisdom of her own generation was anti-nuclear and wary of duplicitous heavy industry. As her aunt and her friends reveal, however, post-war Namie was a poor village where farmers often had to leave for city jobs over the winter to make ends meet. Some grew envious of other local towns which had become economically prosperous thanks to corporate investment while others remained sceptical. Those who refused to sell their land for the development of another nuclear plant were harassed into submission by those convinced of its benefits, while TEPCO was keen to invite the local community to inspect existing plants to prove that they were safe.
An awkward and in fact incredibly sexist propaganda video targeted at local wives and mothers demonstrates that safety was still an issue as late as the ‘90s, a company representative ominously claiming that the plant has been designed to withstand a tsunami before adding “we will never betray your trust”. Many residents still want to believe in TEPCO’s promises, sure that they will somehow fix what is broken even while many of them are trapped in temporary housing with no idea when or if they’ll be allowed to return home. Aunt Kuniko tries to stay cheerful, bored with trying to kill time having previously devoted herself entirely to work. Miyake describes her aunt as a feminist pioneer who showed her how to be glamorous and successful while also having a rich family life. Ironically enough, Kuniko ran both a wedding parlour and a funeral home right next to each other with a bakery in-between. She wanted her children to take the businesses over, but her three sons have already moved on, one buying an apartment and starting a business of his own far away without saying anything at all about it to her.
The tsunami disaster has deepened a generational divide with the young leaving the area to make new lives elsewhere while as one old lady puts it the elderly are left behind with nothing to do but laugh. These people haven’t just lost their homes, they’ve lost their hometown, in a sense orphaned and free floating in a Japan struggling to find space for them as the heartrending echoes of plaintive folksong Furusato make clear. Forced to accept they may never be able to return, Kuniko looks for new premises but only for her funeral home conceding that there’s not much future in the wedding business, with all of the youngsters gone there’s no one left to get married. “There’s no such thing as absolute safety” she laments, regretting having been duped by TEPCO and the dubious promises they sold even as they positioned themselves as the driving force of the post-war economic miracle. The town felt proud by proxy that the energy they generated went into rebuilding the country, but as Miyake admits as long as the lights stay on in Tokyo no one cares about Fukushima or about the people still living in temporary accommodation caught in a never-ending limbo waiting for someone to tell them what they’re supposed to do now that everything they’ve ever worked for or built is lost in an instant.
While her husband remains somewhat sympathetic to TEPCO, arguing that the problem isn’t nuclear power but safety, Kuniko begins to lose her patience taking part in protest marches against the plant while trying to salvage what she can from her old life. Miyake bookends the film with images of post-Fukushima Namie now an eerie ghost town, pastries still sitting in Kuniko’s bakery the area’s timelessness ironically mirroring Miyake’s description of it in her childhood memories as a kind of time-warp to post-war Japan from bubble-era Tokyo. An elegy for a community erased, Miyake’s quietly angry documentary takes aim at indifferent government and corporate greed, but finds also a stoical sense of endurance as Kuniko waters her abandoned flowers and prepares to start again.