It has long been assumed that filmmakers should tread carefully in the wake of tragedy. Whether confronting war or genocide, a terrorist attack or a natural disaster, the importance of bearing witness bumps up against the danger of trivialization and exploitation. In the annals of catastrophe cinema Japan’s triple disaster has proved to be an unusually accelerated case. Within months of the powerful earthquake and tsunami of March 11, 2011, which killed thousands and caused the reactor meltdowns at the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear plant, there were already enough movies on the subject to constitute an all-but-instant subgenre.
The Berlin Film Festival last month featured three documentaries on the aftermath, dealing collectively with topics like the complications of the cleanup effort, the plight of evacuees and the resurgent anti-nuclear movement. Japan Society in New York marked the first anniversary with screenings of films like “The Tsunami and the Cherry Blossom,” a short documentary by Lucy Walker that was nominated for an Academy Award, and “Pray for Japan,” which its director, Stu Levy, made while volunteering in the stricken Tohoku region.
The list of documentaries is long and growing: the Fukushima crisis was the subject of a recent “Frontline” episode, and the Japanese broadcaster NHK ran a March 11 program every day in the week leading up to the anniversary. But this new strain of post-traumatic cinema also includes several fiction films, like Masahiro Kobayashi’s “Women on the Edge,” a drama in which three estranged sisters reunite amid the wreckage of their hometown, and “Himizu,” an adaptation of a manga about troubled teenagers that the director, Sion Sono, quickly rewrote to incorporate a backdrop of actual devastation.
The first major attempt at a survey of March 11 cinema came last October at the Yamagata International Documentary Film Festival, situated just on the other side of a mountain range from the Fukushima area. Struck by the number of disaster-theme submissions, Asako Fujioka, director of the festival’s Tokyo office, said she and her colleagues decided to screen everything that came their way. The idea, Ms. Fujioka wrote in an e-mail, was to “eliminate the curatorial hand” and instead present “a makeshift visual archive.” The Yamagata festival showed 29 films about the earthquake’s aftermath in a program called “Cinema With Us.” Some took an oblique approach, like an omnibus project initiated by the filmmaker Naomi Kawase, which included contributions from well-known auteurs, like Apichatpong Weerasethakul of Thailand and Jia Zhangke of China, on the notion of home, but most were on-the-ground dispatches from the hardest-hit areas.
The sheer volume of responses, and the speed with which filmmakers have reacted, speaks to any number of factors: the convenience of digital recording technology, the velocity of today’s 24/7 news cycle, the scale of the catastrophe (which killed thousands and has displaced many more) and the perceived need to counter government positions and news media reports (which have come under scrutiny and criticism).
Some suggest deeper impulses. “It became almost an obligation to do something about the quake, to the point that doing something else was somewhat regarded as a sin,” said Toshi Fujiwara, whose film “No Man’s Zone,” about the abandoned towns in the Fukushima area, was shown in Berlin.
Chris Fujiwara, , the artistic director of the Edinburgh International Film Festival and formerly a lecturer at Tokyo University (no relation to Toshi Fujiwara), noted that many of the films “raise explicitly, or allude to, a very broad and rich context for understanding what the disaster has revealed about Japanese society.”
A philosophically inclined essay film, “No Man’s Zone” considers what it means to film something invisible: the radioactive molecules that may have made the region uninhabitable for generations to come and the agrarian way of life there that was already disappearing before being perhaps erased for good. Atsushi Funahashi’s “Nuclear Nation,” which was also screened in Berlin, depicts the daily lives of a group of nuclear refugees who were forced to leave the town of Futaba and the regrets of the mayor, now without a town, who speaks candidly of the local economy’s Faustian dependence on nuclear money.
The films have inspired debate not only about such issues but also about the methods of the filmmakers. Some of the documentaries that were shown in Yamagata sparked vigorous discussions, according to Ms. Fujioka, who added that the films often “reveal the unease of the filmmaker, caught between two emotions: an urge and sense of duty to record the reality, and a sense of guilt of intruding and possibly taking advantage of the victims’ tragedy.”
Many of the ethical questions about documenting disaster center on the difficulty of reconciling outsider perspectives with the experiences of those who were directly affected. With the March 11 movies these concerns may also be “colored by Japanese cultural notions of decency and shame,” Chris Fujiwara said. In “311,” one of the more controversial films at Yamagata, four Tokyo filmmakers chronicle their journey to the Fukushima area. What begins as an awkward, blackly comic road trip, cameras trained on Geiger counters, becomes even more discomfiting as they interview traumatized residents, document the retrieval of bodies and are told, more than once, to stop filming.
The conflict between locals and big-city interlopers mirrors an underlying dynamic of the Fukushima crisis: The crippled plant was operated by the Tokyo Electric Power Company and generated energy for consumption in Tokyo, some 150 miles away.
Ethics and aesthetics are particularly intertwined in these films, calling to mind Jean-Luc Godard’s famous pronouncement that tracking shots are a matter of morality. As with their Hurricane Katrina counterparts, many of these films show large expanses of rubble and debris, typically in a long traveling shot from a moving vehicle. The visual motif captures the magnitude of the devastation but can also reek of disaster tourism.
Among the most nuanced of the Fukushima films, “No Man’s Zone” is also perhaps the one most aware of the subgenre’s potential problems. Shooting within the depopulated, badly damaged 12-mile evacuation zone, Mr. Fujiwara relies mainly on a tripod-mounted camera that lingers on the intrinsic beauty of the landscapes; the voice-over questions our morbid attraction to images of destruction and mentions the reluctance of the cameraman to walk on the ruins.
A few other filmmakers have also struck a contemplative note. Jon Jost, the veteran independent American filmmaker (“Sure Fire”), attended the Yamagata festival last year and visited the affected regions close by. He is now finishing a film he shot on an island near the quake’s epicenter. Titled “The Narcissus Flowers of Katsura-shima,” it incorporates landscape shots and traditional Japanese poetry. The experimental filmmaker Takashi Makino’s unconventional response to Fukushima is a short film called “Generator,” which envisions Tokyo as a disintegrating organism, through abstract, pulsing images.
The Yamagata festival’s “Cinema With Us” program has traveled around Japan in recent months. Ms. Fujioka said that some audiences, especially in the disaster zones, were moved to tears, but she also noticed a lack of interest in certain regions. “People, especially young people, seem to want to move on now that they are not in danger themselves,” she said. “There is a bit of disaster fatigue.”
But the films show no sign of stopping. Some of the March 11 filmmakers, including Mr. Funahashi and Mr. Fujiwara, are working on sequels. Mr. Fujiwara said he remains compelled to investigate other aspects of the Fukushima area, like its archaeological history, but he also wonders if the public conversations started by the crises have gained any real traction.
“We continue to evade the debates,” he said, adding that much of the dialogue has devolved into a “fetishization of disaster.” As he sees it, the biggest crime for a filmmaker would be to tackle this subject without a clear point of view. Given the gravity of the situation, he said, it was not enough simply to reflect the persistent mood of confusion: “These people have lost their homes, their family members, an entire lifestyle. If you don’t know what to shoot, then don’t shoot. Go home. Leave them alone in peace.”