In a scene from “Hibaku-ushi to Ikiru” (Living with irradiated cattle), stray cattle head down a road in the 20-kilometer no-entry zone around the crippled Fukushima No. 1 nuclear power plant in August 2011.
OSAKA–For some cattle farmers in Fukushima Prefecture, the thought of destroying their herds is too painful to bear even if they are contaminated with radioactive fallout.
A new documentary to be shown here this week records the plight of these farmers, who continue to look after their beef cattle in defiance of a government request to euthanize the animals.
“I took on this project because I wanted to capture what is driving farmers to keep their cattle. For all the trouble it is worth, the animals are now worthless,” said Tamotsu Matsubara, a visual director who shot the documentary.
Four years in the making, “Hibaku-ushi to Ikiru” (Living with irradiated cattle) is set for its first screening on Aug. 26 at a local community center in the city.
Matsubara’s interactions with the cattle farmers date to the summer of 2011, a few months after the nuclear crisis unfolded at the Fukushima No. 1 nuclear power plant following the Great East Japan Earthquake and tsunami on March 11 that year. His assignment was to cover a traditional festival in Minami-Soma, which is located near the stricken nuclear plant.
Matsubara, 57, became acquainted with a farmer caring for more than 300 cattle on his land in the 20-kilometer no-entry zone set by the government. Residents in the zone were ordered to evacuate, but the farmer stayed on to look after his animals.
At that time, the government was seeking to destroy the cattle within the no-entry zone by obtaining their owners’ consent, saying animals that were heavily contaminated with radiation from the nuclear accident could not be sold at market.
But some farmers did not want to put their livestock down.
However, keeping them alive costs 200,000 yen ($2,000) a year in feed per head.
Matsubara became curious why the farmers continued to look after cattle that cannot be sold or bred, despite the heavy economic burden.
He soon began making weekly trips from Osaka to Fukushima to film the lives of the farmers, their cattle and the people around them.
After finishing his regular job in promotional events on Fridays, Matsubara would drive 11 hours to Fukushima and spend the weekend documenting the plight of the farmers before returning to Osaka by Monday morning.
He had 5 million yen saved for the documentary, his first feature film. When the money ran out, Matsubara held a crowdfunding campaign to complete it. Shooting wrapped up at the end of December.
About 350 hours of footage was edited into the 104-minute “Hibaku-ushi to Ikiru.”
The film documents the farmers and their supporters who are struggling to keep the cattle alive.
One couple in the film returns to their land in Okuma, a town that co-hosts the Fukushima plant, to care for their herd. They affectionately named each animal and said it would be unbearable to kill them. Their trips are financed using a bulk of the compensation they received for the nuclear accident.
A former assemblyman of Namie, a town near the plant, tends to his animals while asking himself why he used to support nuclear power.
The documentary also sheds light on scientists who are helping the farmers. The researchers believe that keeping track of the contaminated cattle will provide clues in unraveling how low-level radiation exposure impacts large mammals like humans.
Matsubara said the documentary tells the real story of what is going on with victims of the nuclear disaster.
“Not all the farmers featured in the documentary share the same opinion or stance,” Matsubara said. “I would like audiences to see the reality of people who cannot openly raise their voices to be heard.”
Takeshi Shiba, a documentary filmmaker who served as producer of this project, hopes the film will reach a wide audience.
“Matsubara broke his back in making this movie,” he said. “I hope that many people will learn what Fukushima people are thinking.”