SON OF SAICHI (pronounced Sah-ee-chee) is the working title of our new film – a Principle Pictures short – and the reason Beth Balaban and I are heading to Fukushima, Japan today. We are trying to understand what it means to reconsider a life, reconceive catastrophe and imagine a future.
Our story focuses on the Ouchi family, affected in unimaginable ways by nuclear radiation. Sixty years ago, when the first atomic weapons were dropped on Japan, Saichi Ouchi was a military medic in Hiroshima. After World War II, he returned to Kawamata, the fertile land of his youth, where he took over the family rice farm with his wife, Tsugiko. When the Daiichi Nuclear Power Plant was commissioned 60 miles away in 1971, they were too busy raising 4 children to give it much thought.
Saichi’s family didn’t want to move him into a nursing home two years ago, but three strokes had taken their toll, and Saichi needed round-the-clock care. Moving to his new home in the mountain village of Iitate, Fukushima meant living even closer to the nuclear power plant which is just 24 miles away.
That’s where Saichi was on March 11, 2011 when an earthquake of terrifying magnitude unleashed a tsunami that caused a nuclear disaster. As power plant reactors at Daiichi Nuclear Power Plant melted down, massive amounts of radiation began leaking from the damaged plant. Much like the A-Bomb raining down on August 6, 1945, this time, too, cruelty came from the skies.
In the days following explosions inside the Fukushima reactors, wind carried radiation clouds over Iitate. Radiation levels shot up to 45 microsievert per hour, several times higher than the radiation level that forced the evacuation of Chernobyl. But in Iitate, no one was evacuated. Yet.
When the government finally ordered evacuations – too late, many say – there wasn’t much Saichi could do anyway. There was no way for him to go, nowhere for him to go. So he stayed.
Now 81-years-old, he is 1 of only 8 people in the history of the world to be twice exposed to nuclear radiation in his lifetime.
Says Saichi’s eldest son, Hidekazu, “I strongly believe that delaying informing us was the same as murder.”
But neither man nor nature killed Saichi, and Hidekazu knows he is the son of a true survivor.
Throughout his life Hidekazu has found meaning and hope in the land. But today contamination prevents him from carrying on the family’s sacred tradition of rice farming. While those around him pray for radiation-free rice, Hidekazu remembers the hikes he took with his own sons, and the joy he once found in picking wild mushrooms and other mountain vegetables. Those, too, now represent danger, and the past.
The sense of nostalgia and purpose deepen when he visits his father, and radiation detectors in Iitate remind him of the “new normal” with radiation level readings displayed every ten seconds, twenty-four hours a day.
Hidekazu – the son of Saichi – is leading the family into the future, but he still cannot imagine what that future will be. He is reconsidering his life, reconceiving the tragedies his family—and especially his father—has faced, and finding new meaning to life amidst the rarest of misfortunes.