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Year: 2010
Languages: Japanese, English, Swedish
Director: Kamanaka Hitomi
Genre: Documentary 
Runtime: 115 min
Trailer: Ashes to Honey (subtitled)
Official website:  Ashes to Honey (both in Japanese and English)

Seen at a screening as part of the Zipangu Fest at the ICA.

Note: Ashes to Honey screened as part of Zipangu Fest’s Nuclear Reactions programme. Other features included Kamanaka’s 2006 documentary 六ヶ所村 ラプソディー (Rokkasho-mura rapusodii/Rokkasho Rhapsody), the vintage docudrama 第五福龍丸 (Daigo Fukuryū Maru/Lucky Dragon No.5; 1959, directed by Shindo Kaneto) and Takeda Shinpei’s 2009 ヒロシマナガサキ ダウンロード (Hiroshima Nagasaki Download) road trip documentary.

At the heart of the documentary Ashes to Honey is the question “How is it possible to create a sustainable society?” This question is explored by Kamanaka Hitomi, a long-time documentary film maker whose previous features covered the fallout from nuclear weapons and nuclear power from England to Iraq. The documentary’s initial focus is on Iwaishima (Yamaguchi Prefecture), a small island located in the Inland Sea of Japan (see Google Maps images below), where Chugoku Electric Power has been trying to build a new nuclear power plant for many years but has been met with the resistance of many of the islanders since the early 1980s.

(Click to enlarge Google Maps images.)

The documentary shows the daily life of people of Iwaishima, who number just over 3000 and have an average age of 75. Products such as hijiki seaweed, rice or loquat fruit are grown, harvested and prepared for sale in other parts of Japan. Islanders are understandably worried that with the construction of a nuclear power plant the flora and fauna of the island will be affected (particularly through seawater that will be used as a coolant and pumped back into the sea at higher temperatures), that their products may be shunned and that they will lose their livelihoods.

Kamanaka then takes us to Sweden, to communities – as far up north as the Arctic Circle – that have been moving away from fossil fuels and instead are aiming for self-sustainability through the use of different types of renewable energy. The Swedish section of the film is to present viewers with the alternatives that are available as well as possible, as long as the willingness to switch from nuclear power to more sustainable energy sources is there.

The reaction from some of the Swedish subjects interviewed (particularly one man’s disbelief that Japanese consumers cannot choose who to buy their energy from) highlights the obstacles that must be overcome if Japan is to create a more sustainable society: a change in public opinion – away from unquestioning support of nuclear power – is needed as well as a deregulation of the energy market so that consumers can have a choice. These obstacles are huge, given that the Japanese government has been promoting the use of nuclear power since the 1960s, with 54 nuclear power plants now in use across the country and plans to build more.

The general public however seems to have little objection to the status quo. Japan also does not have much of a protesting culture to start with, as it is a collectivist, rather than individualistic society. But all this makes the protests on Iwaishima even more impressive: the resistance there has primarily been led by elderly citizens, people, who, as one villager says, “will die soon” and yet are willing to wield microphones and loudly voice their dissent in a society that frowns upon such actions. How not to be moved by these 75-year olds? These unselfish people who occupy a bay for days and days in order to prevent the installation of light markers, not for themselves but for the future of their children and grandchildren?

Image of Fukushima Nuclear Power Plant after the March 2011 Earthquake

There is some hope: ever since the Tōhoku earthquake on March 11, 2011 – which had a magnitude of 9.0 on the Richter scale and infamously resulted in a tsunami that led to meltdowns at nuclear power plants in Fukushima (Fukushima Prefecture) – Kamanaka has been able to spread her message more widely, both within Japan and internationally. Because of the unprecedented scale of the Fukushima disaster, the Japanese government soon came under close scrutiny and has been accused of not only poorly handling the emergency, but also of covering up facts in relation to the seriousness of the situation – something that will hopefully lead the people of Japan (and elsewhere) to question the safety of nuclear power and demand more sustainable energy resources.

For my own part, I find it difficult to grasp how a nation in which hundreds of thousands of their own people died from and/or suffered from the fallout of two atomic bombs can be supportive of nuclear power at all – it just seems contradictory to me. It’s certainly a question I would have liked to ask the filmmaker, who was unfortunately unable to attend the screening.

Rating: No numerical rating – but strongly recommended.

Related Documentaries of Interest: 

In addition to the other Nuclear Reaction features presented as part of Zipangu Fest, these documentaries also deal with nuclear power in Japan:

Additional Links: 

  • Article on Ashes to Honey from the Independent
  • Ashes to Honey‘s Facebook page
  • Article on the Fukushima disaster from the Independent (“Why the Fukushima Disaster Is Worse than Chernobyl”)
  • Article on Food Safety after the Fukushima disaster (my friend Midori-san, whom I went see the screening with, was interviewed for this article)