By Ruairidh Villar and Elaine Lies
TOKYO (Reuters) - A Japanese farming family is forced from their home by the Fukushima nuclear disaster, living in cramped temporary housing under stress as they wait for permission to return to land worked by their ancestors for generations.
That is the all-too-real backdrop of "Homeland", the first Japanese mass-market film set in Fukushima since the world's worst nuclear crisis in 25 years made the area's name infamous.
Shown at the recent Berlin Film Festival, the movie - called "Ieji" ("The Road Home") in Japanese - features some scenes shot in areas once declared no-go zones by the government due to high radiation levels.
Despite an intense debate about whether to restart the rest of Japan's nuclear reactors that were idled after the disaster, director Nao Kubota said he opted to tell a human story.
"I wanted to make a film that would be relevant for a long time to come, that people could watch in 10, 20, 50 or even 100 years and see that this sort of claustrophobic situation came about," he said.
"That's what I want everyone to feel - and it's for that reason that it's not anti-nuclear."
On March 11, 2011, a massive offshore earthquake sent tsunami tearing through villages in northeastern Japan, setting off meltdowns at the Fukushima Dai-Ichi nuclear plant that irradiated a wide swath of countryside and forced more than 150,000 people from their homes.
"Homeland", released in Japan nearly three years after the disaster, centers on long-estranged son Jiro, who secretly moves into the exclusion zone to reclaim the family farm.
Much is made of the difference between the temporary housing - with families who owned sprawling farmhouses now living in small units in a long line - and the open areas in the exclusion zone where abandoned cows roamed and empty streets were full of weeds.
"The birds were singing and we felt like we were intruding. But despite the beauty, everything was frozen in time," said Kubota, who has a background in documentaries.
"It was beautiful but no one could live there. In a way, there was something menacing. You couldn't smell it, the colors hadn't changed, and you couldn't see or physically feel it. There's that sort of fear."
WALKING A NARROW PATH
This contrast may have helped Kubota get across his message without making it too obvious, said film critic Yuichi Maeda.
"Taking a camera into the no-go zone and filming there really shows the claw marks of the nuclear accident," Maeda said. "He may say he's not anti-nuclear but after seeing the film I think he actually is."
The touchiness of the nuclear issue tends to cause backers to shun anything too critical. Even stronger reasons to tread softly are that film revenues are falling in Japan and viewers are averse to movies with too heavy a political line.
Other directors have faced a similar dilemma in dealing with Fukushima. One, Sion Sono, got around it by setting his 2012 movie "Land of Hope" in an unspecified future and the fictional Nagashima prefecture.
"The moment I told (my usual investors) that this was a film about nuclear power, they told me it was just too taboo," Sono said.
"In the end we just had to cobble together money to make it, including from overseas," he said. "People don't want to think about the nuclear issue."
But Kubota's "Homeland" - however subtle its message - has struck a nerve with at least some viewers.
"Prime Minister Abe is plugging nuclear power as though nothing happened in Fukushima," said Takashi Nakamura, 68. "The movie made me feel there's something wrong with that."
(Writing by Elaine Lies; Editing by John O'Callaghan)