Japanese film director Takafumi Ota had a problem. He needed studio financing for a film that was harshly critical of the nuclear industry in the aftermath of Fukushima, but no one was interested in funding his project the traditional way.
Large sections of Japan’s movie industry wanted nothing to do with it, and he was told that influential sponsors did not want to be associated with anything that criticised the powerful atomic sector.
“It wasn’t only major film distribution companies but also DVD companies – who usually get interested in investing in films to share copyright – who showed no interest in my plan,” said the 52-year-old Ota, whose previous work includes the critically acclaimed 2006 film Strawberry fields, which screened at the Cannes International Film Festival.
“A senior film director told me, ‘Don’t do this. You’ll never be able to make commercial films.’”
With few options to make the film, but a groundswell of anti-nuclear feeling in post-Fukushima Japan, Ota turned to the public to make his film in another example of how crowd-funding is changing the face of traditional financing.
The practice sees individuals or firms raise micro-donations from small investors over the internet. While still small, the market has been booming, with companies such as the pioneering KickStarter offering donation-based funding for creative projects.
Globally, the crowd-funding market grew 81 per cent last year and was on track to raise US$5.1 billion last year, with investments in everything from business start-ups and philanthropic projects to films and music, according to research firm Massolution.
For Ota, raising money through his blog from a public suspicious of the nuclear industry got him the crucial 10 million yen (HK$737,000) that he needed to make Asahi No Ataru Ie  (The House of Rising Sun), a film about a family pulled apart by a Fukushima-like nuclear crisis. Each donor was offered the chance to see their name on the credits.
“The 10 million yen budget is extremely low for a feature-length film, but actors and other staff got on-board despite low salaries,” Ota said.
Careers on the line
Among them was Taro Yamamoto, a 39-year-old actor who is a household name in Japan thanks to his appearances in movies, television dramas and on variety shows.
Yamamoto, who became an outspoken lawmaker following last year’s national elections, began campaigning against nuclear power weeks after the nuclear crisis erupted in March 2011, hoping he could use his fame to bring further attention to the issue.
But he suddenly found the oxygen of publicity – and the source of his salary – cut off.
“Job offers dried up,” Yamamoto said. “Whenever my name was mentioned, sales department people pressured [producers to drop me from a cast].”
Ota’s film tells the story of a farming family whose lives are turned upside down in a chaotic and badly managed evacuation after a nuclear accident, where government information is scarce or unreliable.
Yamamoto’s character is a relative who tries to persuade the family to move to Okinawa, Japan’s southernmost island, as they suffer through futile efforts to decontaminate their strawberry fields and one of them develops cancer.
It is now being screened at about 10 independent movie theatres and cinema complexes in Japan.
The film taps into the strong feelings of critics who accused the Japanese government and nuclear industry of jointly downplaying the severity of the Fukushima disaster and dragging their heels on releasing information.
Like most of Japan, Ota watched in horror as the nuclear crisis unfolded in 2011 after a huge tsunami slammed into the nuclear power plant on the country’s northeast coast.
Three of its reactors went into meltdown, venting a plume of radiation that polluted land, sea and air, with tens of thousands of people living in the area forced to flee. Many are still unable – or unwilling – to return home.
The tsunami drowned or swept away 18,000 people, but the nuclear crisis itself is not officially recorded as having directly killed anyone.
“In March 2011, when I saw television reports of the tsunami and the developments afterwards, I felt an urge to do something for people in Japan,” Ota said.
“What the government said initially – that there is no immediate risk to health – was dubious,” Ota said, echoing a now-common distrust among the public about nuclear power.
Yamamoto, meanwhile, recently caused outrage from the nation’s conservatives by handing a letter to Emperor Akihito during a royal garden party – a breach of protocol – to let the revered royal know directly about the plight of people affected by the Fukushima disaster.
The move was lightly reprimanded by the government which called Yamamoto’s behaviour “not appropriate”.
But the actor-turned-politician’s future is secure – at least in the short term – while his director is in a more precarious position.
“If this film is a success, I’ll be given another chance to work on something related to social issues,” Ota said.
“But if it proves to be a commercial disaster, there is no future for me as a film director.”