These young musicians from Japan have arrived in Boston and have made the most beautiful music out of a catastrophe, wringing hope out of disaster through the power of art. LISTEN and WATCH.

Fukushima Youth Sinfonietta – Music from Fukushima in Boston – from The Japan Society of Boston on Vimeo.

The Fukushima Youth Sinfonietta, an ensemble of young musicians aided by the British NGO Keys of Change in the immediate aftermath of the earthquakes/tsunami/nuclear meltdown disasters of March 11, 2011, will make its United States debut with a performance at Boston’s Symphony Hall, Sunday, April 3, at 8 p.m. More than fifty teen-age instrumentalists from the Fukushima Youth Sinfonietta, accompanied by senior musicians from Japan, the United States, England, and India, will travel to Boston to participate in the April 3 program.  Tickets for the April 3 concert are available at the Symphony Hall box office, and may be purchased online at www.bso.org

BELOW– My review of the NUCLEAR NATION, the documentary film about the disaster will help flesh out the context. The film is available On Demand.


At one point in the 2012 Japanese documentary NUCLEAR NATION about the Fukushima Daiichi power plant disaster, the camera focuses on a sign above a town turned to rubble that, loosely translated, says, “Atomic Energy makes our town prosperous.” One can’t help but recall another sign “Arbeit Macht Frei” hovering above the site of another human tragedy. The mocking words in each case point up the horror beyond. But in the case of Fukushima the tragedy involves a conundrum of culpability, and reaction to the immediate disaster has been strangely muffled. NUCLEAR NATION (in Japanese with English subtitles) means to make some noise–but is only partially successful. If you were looking for a documentary to blow the lid off the secrecy around the extent of the destruction, and lack of restitution–in other words outrage “a la Michael Moore”– you will not find it here, but there is much that is worthy and troubling.

What you will find is a young filmmaker, Atsushi Funahashi, who uses his camera as silent witness to what, up to now,¬† has not been fully seen and acknowledged. Here’s what we already knew: on March 11, 2011¬† a devastating earthquake and tsunami hit Japan causing a hydrogen explosion at the number 1 reactor at Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power station; radiation was released. The town of Futaba, 3km from the explosion, was ordered to evacuate immediately and those who fled had no time to take anything– not clothes, not food, not pets, or livestock.¬† Eventually, two more reactors would be crippled, leaving 20,000 dead or missing in northeastern Japan.

The filmmakers started shooting within 3 weeks of the disaster to show us what we didn’t know. The movie opens quietly– with the sound of wind and a shot of reactors in the hazy distance, then a close-up on cherry blossoms catching the breeze on a Spring day.¬†We later learn that the wind blew radiation in the direction of those fleeing ground zero. We also learn that the Japanese government failed to report the level of radiation and those residents were contaminated.¬† An abandoned high school 250 km away, is where 1400 of Futaba’s inhabitants have fled, and a year later, 500 still live there on the floor, in classrooms, eating rice gruel, trying to pass the time, mourning their dead relatives and friends, and feeling betrayed by a government and a corporation (The Tokyo Electric Power Company, TEPCO) that has not personally apologized, or told them what will become of their town and if they might ever go home.

Home is now a landscape leveled; people cloaked in masks and protective garb have been gradually allowed back briefly to gather belongings from splintered homes. But it’s the sight of the rotted, mummified corpses of livestock, left behind to die a slow, brutal death from starvation, that sickened me most, and tacitly carries the film’s message: the inhabitants who worked the plants have been left behind in the dark, not knowing what’s to become of them.

The film is most effective when the camera stands steadily by these refugees, the lens in close on their faces, to capure the emotion painfully making its way to the surface. We meet a man and his son still agonized over the loss of the mother, “a sweet woman,” who was swept away, still in her home, by the tsunami. The sight of the son holding back tears is painful, but even more disturbing is watching him come to the realization that but for the power plants, his mother would be alive.

And this is the undercurrent that is never fully explored, what at some level everyone connected with the film– filmmaker and villagers alike– are dealing with. The filmmaker himself is from Tokyo, and understands that these nuclear plants were deliberately built far from the places where the power was used, becoming the main industry in small villages where people were promised jobs and money– in exchange for all the risk. This is eventually conveyed by the mayor of Futaba–Katsutaka Idogawa– whose town enjoyed the short term¬† benefits of the nuclear power business for 40 years, but says that he sees now that it was the people in Tokyo who prospered, while “we were swimming in radiation.” But his face reveals a troubling awareness of his role–perhaps unwittingly– in that Faustian bargain.

Unfortunately, NUCLEAR NATION is pretty slow going and given the uniqueness of the documentation, and the importance of its message, deserves to be more compelling than it is. The film doesn’t always make clear how much time has passed or where exactly we are. Too often the video meanders or the action stops so a fact can be trotted out, clumsily, as words on a black background with all the sound dropped out. Had this material been more pointedly and dramatically organized, and had the filmmaker been more willing to examine the cruel ironies of the issues raised in a country shadowed by Hiroshima and Nagasaki, NUCLEAR NATION would have landed more powerfully in a world that is becoming harder to see clearly though the haze.