Holy Island (2010)

Iwai-shima, a small island of 7.67 square kilometers in its area and 12 kilometers in its perimeter, is a part of Kaminoseki/Kumage county of Yamaguchi prefecture. It is located in the west end of the Seto Island Sea (the sea you see in Ozu’s “Tokyo Story”), just several kilometers off the coast of the main land. The population is only little more than 500, roughly 70% of which are over seventy years old. These aging islanders are making living by line fishing and small-scale farming on steep slopes of the island. The place is often hit by typhoons, which sometimes damage a large part of the small village. Though the name Iwai-shima means “the island of celebration”, the life is not easy for them.

This island has become the subject of not only one, but two documentary films of the year 2010. “Ashes to Honey (1)” is directed by Hitomi Kamanaka (Official English Website) and “Holy Island (2)” is by Aya Hanabusa (Official English Website). Both films deal with the same topic; three decades of islander’s protest against the nuclear power plant plan.

Japanese electric power industry is essentially monopoly by a set of companies, each of which is allocated to a different part of the country. For example, TEPCO monopolies the electricity market in the Kanto area, including Tokyo, Kanagawa, Chiba and other areas around Tokyo. They control every aspect of electricity, from power plants, delivery management, infrastructure management, and even down to small trivial matters such as meters in individual houses. They are multi-billion conglomerates backed by a fleet of banks, industries, governments and media. They spend billions of dollars on advertisements and other public relation activities, to protect their interest.

Iwai-shima is in the territory of Chugoku Electric Power Company (CEPCO), one of those monopolies. CEPCO had announced the plan for a nuclear power plant, the Kaminoseki Nuclear Power Plant, in the Tano-ura. The proposed location is directly facing the Iwai-shima village, with only a few kilometers of water in between. The plan has been floating around for more than three decades. Almost all the population of Iwai-shima opposed the plan immediately after it was announced. The problem is, the rest of the county is in favor of the CEPCO plan, which would bring government compensations and jobs in the area. You will be better off with lots of money and jobs in the plant, says the company, Japanese government and the country officials.

Then, we would expect these two films to be politically motivated discussion between the oppressed and the big corporations. You might expect the screens full of excruciating tragedies and angers. Sad faces and tears. Instead, we have serene discussions of life and its possibilities. We have full of laughs, smiles and compassion. These documentaries, both directed by women, sensibly treat the islanders and their lives. They don’t try to manipulate audience’s feelings. They don’t try to sell somebody else’s idea. They don’t have to. Tales of the island are unique, dramatic and inspiring in themselves.

1100th street demonstration (via. Iwai-shima Blog)

Street Demonstration

These days, the streets around the globe are filled with people, from Egypt to Wall Street. People with agendas, ideas, opinions. They are out there with hopes to change. It is one of the most basic methods of expression for democratic process.

In Iwai-shima, this is more than true. Here, you will witness the most unique and primal form of street demonstration. Their weekly demonstration parade through the narrow streets of the island, chanting “We are against Nuclear Power Plant!”. Most of the demonstrators are in their seventies and eighties, and their procession is much more akin to strolls during the picnic. Their voice is no more audible than seagull’s squealing. They do demonstration in their own village. At first glance, this seems to lack political flavor of any kind, completely ineffective in delivering their message to their powerful opponent. But this street demonstration is not the result of the burst of frustration or brought about by the sudden imbalance of political equilibrium. Their demonstration has been repeated every week, more than 1000 times over the course of three decades. This is part of their life.

It is not a political agenda for them. It is a matter of life. “We don’t sell our sea for money.” Compensation is not a solution.

Two films follow the events of the island during 2007 -2010. The festival of Kamimai is the tradition observed by islanders for more than 1000 years. They resurrected it in 2008 after a decade of moratorium due to the island’s poisonous atmosphere. The scuffle outside the local county meeting, where pro-nuclear plant representatives outnumbered the anti-nuclear ones to approve the land development. This was followed by a chain-of-boats blockade by the islanders against the land development. Though these events and even the feel of the images are almost identical, two films land on slightly different grounds.

Ashes to Honey (2010)

Buzz of a Honeybee

In “Ashes to Honey”, Hitomi Kamanaka threads the story in spiral progression. It starts with the life in Iwai-shima, dissecting the nuclear power plant problem, then visiting Sweden for discussion of sustainable energy solution in 21st century, and finally re-visiting the island to evaluate the prospect of such a solution. It looks like a going around in a full circle, but in fact, the story in not circular, but spiral. Things change even during this short time Kamanaka follows the events on the island. The story did not come back at the same spot as it had started. CEPCO succeeded in securing the area for land development/land-fill. The fierce protest and demonstrations captured on film could not stop the process, only delayed it slightly.

In the middle section, the film discusses the alternative energy solutions ranging from wind power to tidal waves followed by merits of demonopolizing electricity industries in Japan. These discussions should be essential components of the energy policy in Japan, which has been in complete mess even before the Fukushima Daiichi accident. However, you will realize the conflict in progress is not only political but social matter. During one of the showdown between the islanders and CEPCO, a manager at CEPCO tells the islanders the most incredible slur you could imagine; “there is no future in agriculture and fishing”. These CEPCO employees are considered elites of the society, graduated from top universities, and guaranteed high salaries for all their lives with huge pensions and premiums. To them, small-scale fishing seems dead-end of the older society. Kamanaka was too alert to let this slur go unnoticed, which was cited by the islanders during the government hearing at later date. Again, the invisible wall of social divide between elites and islanders are so thick that exchange between them went nowhere. Through Kamanaka’s lens, the situation seems hopeless with increasing frustration, while the rational solution Kanamaka presents earlier becomes less and less attainable.

Are the islanders in despair? Not quite. They are united to delay the progress of nuclear power plant as much as possible. That’s their strategy. They are quite aware that they alone cannot stop the plan, but they can delay it until the society realizes there are alternatives to this miserable technology. By connecting the dots in spiral, Kamanaka shows us that the islanders had been fighting for their lives long before the film captured them and long after it stopped doing so.

Holy Island (2010)

The Island of the Holy

Though “Holy Island” deals with the same theme as “Ashes to Honey”, it presents much more intimate picture of the islanders. In fact, director Hanabusa and her staff stayed on the island for more than a year, her view diffused into the island. Through its intimacy, the film tells the stories of islanders and their relationship to nature. The islanders protest against nuclear power plant rooted in the much deeper unconscious tie to the nature. The fisherman captures fishes one by one, talking to them, “welcome”. As his wife prepares sashimi from these captures, we realize these people live the most cherished lives human can lead; you eat as the nature provide, not any more than necessary. They work hard, all day long to receive this blessing, but they do this with joy.

Hanabusa never urges the islanders to speak into camera. It captures what they talk to themselves. In fact, the film counterpoints “talking to oneself” to their protest activities. The islanders talk to themselves, and talk about talking to themselves. Aging islanders, one by one, lose their wives or husbands, their children leaving the island, left alone in this world. They eat alone. They work alone. As if to form a new family, aging neighbors get together late at night to watch TV. Camera indulges in their sleepy conversations, which were edited minimally. We feel as if we are in their living room, spending long long night with them. Even in this turmoil, their lives are quiet and there are many hours to reflect.

Long hours, long days and long years are felt through leisure timing of the film. On this slow cinematic time and space, the story of 100-year old rice fields, of weekly demonstration, of the elementary school and of the festival, unfold. Hanabusa chose not use any music. Soundtrack is sounds of the island. It is the logical choice, given the feel of the images. It embraces the sound of life.

During the protest and blockade against CEPCO’s land development, we see many old islanders participated in this tense standoff. When they exchange words with CEPCO employees, they were truly angry but confident. “Have you ever bet your life on anything?” At the same time, we see many old ladies are laughing and joking as if they are on picnic. Such laughter and smiles are precious, as they are united to show how invincible they are. But they are all acutely aware of the real tragedy. The monologue by a lady about the split community is completely devastating and shows how caring and wise these people are.

* * *

Both films are mainly shown at independent meetings and screenings. Major film festivals in Japan do not pick them up. Never on cinecon screens. Reason? I suspect that prominent sponsors and contributors are not in favor of the views expressed in these two films. Nevertheless, such independent films usually end up dead on arrival even in DVD market. However, these two films are still on independent roadshow circuit for more than a year. The demand for the screening is not waning but actually on the rise. I believe it is because these two films successfully captured the unity of human dignity. They are not simple “anti-nuclear” message films. They are stories of wisdom and bravery. I sincerely hope these two films to be shown widely, not only in Japan, but abroad as well.


Ashes to Honey (ミツバチの羽音と地球の回転 (Buzz of a Honeybee and the Earth’s Revolution), 2010)

Directed by Hitomi Kamanaka
Produced by Shukichi Koizumi

Holy Island (祝の島 (Houri no Shima), 2010)

Directed by Aya Hanabusa




Ashes to Honey, Trailer (English)

Holy Island, Trailer (Japanese)


Location of Iwai-shima