Couch Potato Briefing: Japan’s Grief, Nuclear Terror and the Need for Speed

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Here is Global Spin’s latest installment rounding-up movies that tell you the week’s news. Suffice to say, it’s been a dark, gloomy seven days. Compiled by Ishaan Tharoor and Tony Karon.


The Grave of the Fireflies

In the wake of the catastrophic 9.0 magnitude earthquake, Japan’s Prime Minister Naoto Kan claimed the disaster was the worst crisis faced by Japan since the ravages of World War II. Isao Takahata’s 1988 Grave of the Fireflies is a tragic masterpiece, hailed by critics as a triumph of animation as well as one of cinema’s best anti-war films. It depicts the struggle of an adolescent boy and his younger sister who are orphaned during the American firebombing of the city of Kobe in 1945. Starving and homeless, the siblings haunt a devastated world that’s spectacularly rendered by the film’s animators — the now legendary Studio Ghibli. As Japan recovers from the horrors of the quake and tsunami that followed, much is being rightly made of the unique ability of many in Japan to cope with calamity. Grave of the Fireflies isn’t at all uplifting. But you’d be hard-pressed to find a better story of human love and suffering in a world that is crumbling to ash.- I.T.


The China Syndrome

Ever wondered why Homer Simpson works in a nuclear plant owned by a greedy misanthrope? Because in the 1980s, when the Simpsons was created, nuclear energy was still widely perceived in American popular culture as a mortal threat. And the reason for that was the March 1979 partial core meltdown of a reactor at the Three Mile Island nuclear power facility in Pennsylvania. Three Mile Island occurred just 12 days after the release of The China Syndrome, a fictionalized account of the cover-up of a near meltdown at a U.S. nuclear plant — the film’s title being drawn from the hyperbolic suggestion that a meltdown would send the core traveling through the earth’s crust all the way to China (a metaphor oddly oblivious of the functioning of gravity). Still, Three Mile Island gave vivid immediacy to the movie’s plotline, as Jack Lemmon’s plant supervisor seeks to warn a TV crew led by Jane Fonda and Michael Douglas that his employers are covering up a nuclear accident in order to protect their bottom line. Questions over just how forthcoming the Tokyo Electric Power Company has been with information about the ongoing nuclear crisis in its Tsunami-stricken Fukushima plant makes this a timely weekend to revisit James Bridges’ 1979 classic — T.K.


When the Wind Blows

“If you can’t see it and can’t feel it it can’t be doing you any harm, can it?” Hilda Bloggs is talking about radiation, which hangs like a thick fog all around her and her husband, Jim — a middle class English couple in rural Sussex, whose descent into the hell of radiation poisoning is the subject of When the Wind Blows. Made in 1986, when Europeans still feared being reduced to pile of radioactive rubble in a nuclear exchange between the U.S. and the Soviet Union, this animated gem of a movie based on Raymond Griggs’ graphic novel of the same title is a heartbreaking tale of innocence betrayed. Jim and Hilda believe everything they’ve been told in hopelessly optimistic government brochures on how to survive a nuclear war. But now that England has been blasted by Soviet nuclear warheads, they slowly succumb to the effects of radiation illness amid declining food and water supplies. Putting on that nice cup of tea, an English remedy for most troubles, now simply means innocently ingesting more radiation. A cautionary tale of the dangers of nuclear war — or, to keep it current, radiation spread by nuclear meltdown — and of believing the soothing words of those in authority. Oh, yes, and a great soundtrack featuring the likes of David Bowie and Roger Waters.- T.K.


Top Gun

The successful passing of a U.N. resolution authorizing the use of force in Libya has raised the specter of another American war in the Middle East. Should the U.S., the U.K., France and other nations find the Gaddafi regime’s offer of a ceasefire insufficient, aerial strikes against Libyan government positions may follow. Top Gun is, if nothing else, a rip-roaring, tub-thumping eulogy to the glory of air power, fleshed out in a rivalry between two elite pilots — Tom Cruise’s “Maverick” and Val Kilmer’s “Iceman.” The pilots do meet real opposition in the form of bogey Soviet MiGs — an encounter that echoed real confrontations between Libyan and U.S. jets in the Gulf of Sidra in 1981. – I.T.



With the world’s attention elsewhere, the Ivory Coast descends further and further into chaos and violence, as militiamen and soldiers loyal to incumbent President Laurent Gbagbo clashing with protesters and fighters backing Alassane Outtara, who is the internationally-recognized winner of an election last year whose results Gbagbo has refused to recognize. As a political impasse now drifts toward civil war, Gbagbo’s has repeatedly invoked the specter of Western or “colonial” interference, decrying the supposed interlopers and foreigners — not just European, but also settlers from other parts of West Africa — supposedly behind Outtara’s bid for power. These polarized camps and the overriding political climate where it seems the winner-takes-all is in part a post-colonial curse that’s affected many other fledgling democracies. The class of elites who replaced colonial administrators often assumed their predecessors’ avarice, cynicism and short-sightedness. Xala, 1975, made by the renowned Senegalese author and auteur Ousmane Sembene, lampoons Dakar’s new ruling class. It still may be a world away from the bloodshed in Abidjan, but Sembene’s satire cuts deep and rings true decades later.– I.T.