BIFF 2020: Oct. 25

(c) Shisso Production Inc.

I spent all day on Kazuo Hara’s latest epic, Minamata Mandala, which is six hours and 12 minutes, thus making it almost twice as long as his last epic, Sennan Asbestos Disaster. The two documentaries are very similar in both subject matter and theme, but I would hardly call them redundant. Both address the grievances of people who have suffered medically for the neglect of the state and attempt to gain redress only to spend many years in an agonizing tug-of-war with the bureaucracy, which is invariably implacable. 

Minamata is, of course, synonymous with structural neglect. Lawsuits to gain some measure of relief for the tens of thousands of people injured by the organic mercury pollution let loose by the Chisso Corporation in the middle of the 20th century in the seas off Kumamoto Prefecture have been going on for almost 60 years, and are still going on for some people. Minamata has been seared in the mind of the world through the photos of W. Eugene Smith, whose own biopic with Johnny Depp playing the late photographer who made those iconic B&W prints of Minamata Disease victims will open theatrically pretty soon, and likely upstage the message this movie is trying to convey. As with Sennan, here Hara is not so much interested in the original crime, which is pretty cut-and-dry, but rather the process of wearing-down that those in power put in motion in order to make an inconvenient problem go away. And while it doesn’t go away, it may not reach the ears of the general public in a way that will make much difference. Hara’s job is to place the viewer right in the middle of the controversy, and while he doesn’t bother to ask for the other side’s view of the matter at hand, you can tell from the action he does put on film that the other side doesn’t give two shits about what the public might think. To them, silence is golden, since it is the most absolute way of asserting power, especially in Japan, where those who are not directly affected are not likely to profess more than token sympathy.

Hara breaks the film, which was was shot over a period of some 20 years, into three parts. The first establishes the science behind the plaintiffs’ claim, which finds the government’s various remedies to be self-serving and insufficient. The criteria for providing compensation and medical treatment established in 1977 was based on medical findings that said Minamata Disease was all about damaged nerves, a decision that excluded many patients who, when tested, presented no nerve damage. Two doctors from Kumamoto, however, theorized quite early on that Minamata Disease was about losing brain function, or, more precisely, it was a disease of “sensory disturbance.” People’s sense of taste and smell were diminished, they lost peripheral vision and some feeling in their extremities, and had trouble communicating, but none of these symptoms presented as damaged nerves because the problem was in the brain and its ability to send the proper signals to the body. It wasn’t until 2006 and the Supreme Court case handling the suit brought by a group of Minamata victims who were living in the Kansai region that the sensory disturbance  explanation was taken seriously. 

The rest of the film presents how this inconvenient ruling was ignored by both the Environmental Ministry and Kumamoto Prefecture, which stalled in its duty to rectify its certification processes for Minamata victims. It’s a maddening journey, filled with court victories that prove to be empty, either because the authorities appeal them again, drawing out the agony for sick people who are at death’s door, or because they simply interpret the court ruling in a way that allows them not to admit they ever did anything wrong. As with Sennan, the movie’s climax is a showdown in the halls of Kasumigaseki with a bunch of youthful civil servants, who know very little about the history of the problem, being dispatched to receive the withering anger of people who have nothing left to lose. But this is even more intense, climaxing in a bit of showy violence when one plaintiff rips the notes out of the hand of a bureaucrat to find out if his “apology” is sincere or not. To make matters worse, these people essentially reenact this farce several days later in the Kumamoto Prefecture offices, where the governor says he will get down on his knees and apologize “if you want me to.”

Interspersed throughout this drama are interludes with various victims of the disease, which offer the requisite human side of the tragedy but, thanks to Hara’s immersive approach, give us a world beyond the hospitals and care homes. I was particularly moved by a certain Mr. Ikoma, who contracted Minamata Disease as a teenager and, despite the widespread prejudice against patients, wed a woman through an arranged marriage. When Hara finds out that the woman is Korean, his investigative antennae go up and he asks the couple and their matchmaker (another Minamata victim—one of the strongest suits of the film is the way it conveys a sense of community among patients) if anti-Korean prejudices had anything to do with the arrangement and the couple says it did not. Hara seems deflated, and, probably the audience is as well, and the mystery endures. Maybe that’s as it should be. Some things just can’t be explained so neatly. 

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