Reviewby Theron Martin,
Ichi-F: A Worker's Graphic Memoir of the Fukushima Nuclear Power Plant
On March 11, 2011 the Great East Japan Earthquake, one of the most powerful ever measured, struck the Tohoku region of northeastern Japan. This earthquake and the ensuing tsunami led to meltdowns and hydrogen explosions at the Fukushima Daichi Nuclear Plant (colloquially nicknamed 1-F or “Ichi-F”), resulting in the worst nuclear disaster since Chernobyl. In its wake, “failed artist” Kazuto Tatsuta decided that he wanted to get involved in the clean-up effort, partly because he needed work anyway and partly out of a sense of national duty. After about a year of effort, he finally landed the first of several jobs that would continue between 2012 and 2014. These are his reflections about what he experienced and saw – the work he did, the people he met, and the process he experienced.
Manga is so typically a disposable entertainment form that it can be easy to lose sight of how compelling a format it can be when devoted to serious, non-dramatized nonfiction accounts. This is just such a work. The author states about halfway through that he made a very specific effort not to play up anything that was going on, partly because he felt it would be a disservice to the work being done there and partly because he felt that the media was already doing plenty enough of that anyway. The result is a work which doesn't directly deal with any big events but instead spends its time carefully and thoroughly examining the common man's view of what was going on during the clean-up effort and covering the mundanity of the little details. It's much more involving in execution than it sounds on paper, as the story follows ordinary people doing ordinary things in an extraordinary environment.
Ichi-F also differs from most manga in its density. It averages around six panels per page, and most of them have some degree of boxed commentary text, sometimes in addition to dialog or plentiful side notes. This means that there's a constant narrative voice, but since a lot has to be explained anyway, it comes across similar to a narrated archeological effort. For all that, the manga doesn't follow a consistent plotline. Tatsuta jumps around quite a bit, sometimes relating accounts out of chronological order. Given that he only worked on-site sporadically and was most typically doing the writing and drawing on breaks between work assignments, this sporadic style is not surprising, and this approach does inadvertently symbolize the irregularity of work schedules that go on at the site. The only negative to this approach is that some repetition creeps into the material, but this is never a big problem.
For all that density, you get a whopping amount of detail. Tatsuta is very diligent about not showing anything that might be sensitive or proprietary, and he took great precautions by using pseudonyms for both people and most of the companies involved in the contract work; the only company whose real name is used is TEPCO (aka Tokyo Electric Power Company), who manages the plant and thus the clean-up effort. He even uses a pseudonym for himself under the fear that he could be blacklisted by companies unhappy about what he's depicting (though he also admits that anyone who really wanted to find out who he was probably wouldn't have to dig too hard to find out). He even uses a wrestler's mask at some points. That being said, he goes into painstaking specifics about everything he can. His first chapter, which won an amateur writing contest, describes the process of suiting up for work in the contaminated zone in 2012, and all of the steps they have to go through to monitor and control their radiation levels. He also goes into detail about how the on-site rest areas work, how the work shifts are set up, and the radiation exposure limits imposed on workers. (There's both a yearly and lifetime quota that are monitored very closely.) He details the jobs he was personally involved with too, which involved things like maintaining rest areas, working on pipes through which irradiated water normally flows, and later using robots in clean-up efforts. The creative solutions to limiting radiation exposure are a recurring feature, as are examining what the facilities at the plant look like at various stages of the clean-up effort. Tatsuta also features many amusing anecdotes, such as a recollection of removing rubber gloves releasing a shower of accumulated sweat or what happens when someone doesn't use one of the toilets right.
But it's not all about the goings-on at the plant, either. Tatsuta includes a lot of details about the involved recruitment effort, how housing situations are handled for workers, and his visits to the No Return Zones, areas that were badly damaged by the tsunami or are off-limits due to radiation. He also spends quite a bit of time focusing on the people, both the locals who were displaced by the disasters and the men who come to work in the clean-up effort, as well as what he went through to get his manga published. The details resulting from this are quite interesting, such as how all of the workers are male, typically in their 40s or 50s, and how they come from a wide variety of regions and walks of life. Though Tatsuta rarely states it explicitly, the camaraderie that develops amongst the workers is a recurring point of emphasis.
For all of the work's attention to detail, it's clearly an emotional and personal work. Tatsuta admits at one point that he chose to describe everything matter-of-factly, because he wanted to emphasize how overblown media accounts of site work have been. He repeatedly indicates that he has a low opinion of the media and even says that he chose to depict the most mundane events specifically to emphasize that things are mundane at the site. The only thing hellish about the environment is how hot the protective suits and masks can get during the summer, as the companies involved are extremely careful with safety protocols. He also states on multiple occasions that he feels the media ignores the “bit by bit” progress that's being made at the site in favor of sensationalist stories that stretch the truth. He's also critical of the extensive downtime in the process and the shady subcontractors who sometimes worm their way into the system. He laments the radiation exposure restrictions that limit how much he can work too, although he acknowledges that he understands why they exist. None of this is too biting, but neither is it tame.
The artistic aspect of this manga seems to suggest that Tatsuta wasn't a successful artist before simply because he didn't have good subject material. He probably won the amateur award at least as much for his art as he did for his subject matter, as his artistry is clean, very detail-rich, and appealing. He also shows a good eye for panel layouts. Scattered amongst the panels are numerous maps and diagrams that show what he's talking about effectively, and his abundance of clarifying comments assures that we can always envision what he's describing, when the black-and-white art can obfuscate fine details of disaster area depictions.
Kodansha Comics has combined the entirety of Tatsuta's work into a single 564 page volume. Perhaps in an attempt to target broader audiences with this release, the volume reads left-to-right rather than the traditional reverse. It features glossy color pages in a few places and bonus pages explaining certain details at the end of many chapters. There are also a few pages of translation notes scattered throughout. The introduction is provided by a French journalist who has extensively covered Japan and the disaster in particular. It ends with a Q&A session with Tatsuta and his editor, a listing of the translations of Japanese names on various protective suits, and an Acknowledgement by a Kodansha editor.
The last parts of the work detail events as recently as 2015 to give readers a good sense of the progress that's being made at the site, as well as the progress that the region as a whole is making to return to some sense of normalcy. Tatsuta clearly shows that he has developed a passion for the region and would love to do more work on this project, but that depends entirely on whether or not he ever gets more work at Fukushima. As it stands, Ichi-F is a valuable work that should have appeal beyond the normal manga reader crowd.
Overall : A
Story : A-
Art : A
+ Provides a wealth of details and insight about an important topic, emphasizes the human aspect of the project
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