Review: Minamata

Probably one of the most fraught American movie releases of recent years, Minamata opens in Japan with its own set of caveats for people interested in both the truths it attempts to address and those who just want to enjoy an engaging film for its own sake. It’s already had its requisite major festival premiere followed by a limited release schedule worldwide, but the U.S. remains closed to the film owing to North American distributor MGM’s squeamishness over star Johnny Depp’s recent notoriety as an alleged wife-beater. In Japan, the city for which the movie is named has effectively disowned it because, according to local media, its “content is unclear,” a rather roundabout way of saying that there are too many sensibilities at risk of being offended, though ostensibly it is the victims of Minamata disease the city is worried about, since they are still targets of discrimination. Nevertheless, anyone who sees the film will conclude that the victims are really victims of corporate greed and official negligence, since it deals forthrightly with the discrimination issue. 

Director Andrew Levitas tries to make the film work on two levels. On the one hand, he wants to explain what has since become known as perhaps the seminal example of industrial pollution in the history of environmental degradation, and on the other he wants to explore the personality of the man, photographer W. Eugene Smith (Depp), who brought the disaster to the world’s attention. Minamata is a fishing town in Kumamoto Prefecture where the Chisso chemical company had a factory that spewed methylmercury into the sea, contaminating the fish that the local people ate. Starting in the 1950s, more and more cases of nerve-related illnesses appeared among residents, but for two decades the company denied that its operations had anything to do with it. The people affected could not find relief from either local or national officials who were in thrall to large companies like Chisso that were spurring Japan’s postwar economic miracle. Long story short, Aileen Mioko (Minami), a Japanese national living in New York, approaches Smith on behalf of the small group of Minamata activists fighting Chisso, because Smith had a reputation for socially relevant work and, more importantly, that work was published in Life magazine, which in 1971 was still an influential publication. (Another reason Aileen approached Smith was that he had some kind of promotional deal with Fujifilm, a factoid I wanted to know more about.) As the film portrays him, Smith by this point had become the stereotypical suffering artist who turned down guaranteed money-making offers in order to follow his whims, which weren’t very distinct, though his drinking problem was acute. In any case, Levitas tries to get too much thematic mileage out of Smith’s problematic relationship with Life editor Bob Hayes (Bill Nighy), who loves the guy’s work but hates the stubborn personality and has people to please who have no use for a dinky fishing village on the other side of the world. 

The heart of the film, and what makes it work better than it should, is Smith’s eventual relationship with the people of Minamata. Understanding his mission they help him obtain cameras, film, and whiskey and set up a dark room for him without really trusting him. Because Smith is a fairly outsized character, Chisso knows he’s there and tries to stonewall him at every turn. Smith has to be snuck into the hospital by Kiyoshi (Ryo Kase), an activist of the victims’ group, in order to take photos of patients, but due to Smith’s exacting aesthetic standards, he isn’t satisfied, and, in any case, it’s unlikely that Life will buy photos of people lying in hospital beds, regardless of what put them there. Still, Chisso is spooked enough that the company’s president (Jun Kunimura) offers Smith bribes and, when that doesn’t work, sicks hired goons on the house he’s staying in to destroy the dark room.

But the movie really comes into its own with the scenes outlining the activities of the victims’ support group, whose leader (Hiroyuki Sanada) at one point gives a speech about how the tragedy needs to be acknowledged by the world because he’s sure that big companies take advantage of local communities everywhere. “It’s happened before,” he says, “and it will happen again.” Though it’s very likely that Levitas fictionalized this component of the film in order to, as they say, make it more dramatically potent, it takes the focus off of Smith long enough to drive home the real meaning of the movie. Quite possibly it is also this component that bothers the city of Minamata now, but from what I’ve read the people with any say in the matter haven’t even seen the film. 

In any case, this grassroots movement to bring their case to the world and Smith’s dogged, somewhat selfish approach to photojournalism dovetail effectively into the movie’s centerpiece scene, in which Smith produces the photograph that made Minamata famous, the “pieta” shot with victim Tomoko Uemura and her mother in the bath. The movie is quite up front about how this shot was not only staged, but essentially planned out. The victims’ group knew that they needed something dramatic and simple to make their case, and after many months of pleading from Aileen, Tomoko’s mother agrees and Smith is ready (though Aileen seems to be the one who choreographs the image). 

The rest, as they say, is history, though Levitas doesn’t send Smith off into the sunset a hero. He doesn’t really know what to do with him any more, which is a negative function of Depp’s star power. Depp has always relished playing iconoclasts, and when they’re odd enough to disappear into (Willy Wonka, Edward Scissorshands), he can be phenomenal, but Smith’s idiosyncrasies are mostly treated as cliches, and what we come away with is basically Johnny Depp on a bender. As with many A-lister turns in unconventional movies, he’s more distracting than enlightening. The real star of the film is the Japanese ensemble—including Tadanobu Asano and Akiko Iwase—which juxtaposes the fierceness of the victims’ anger and disappointment against the smallness of their community. Levitas can’t possibly bring forth the enormity of their struggle, which continues to this day and is more comprehensively covered by Kazuo Hara’s documentary Minamata Mandala, which comes out later this year and mostly addresses the issue of discrimination that Minamata city is so worried Levitas’s film will somehow aggravate. Personally, I think the two films complement each other well, but be warned: Hara’s film is more than six hours long.

In English and Japanese. Now playing in Tokyo at Toho Cinemas Nihonbashi (050-6868-5060), Toho Cinemas Hibiya (050-6868-5068), Shinjuku Wald 9 (03-5369-4955), Toho Cinemas Shinjuku (050-6868-5063), Shibuya Cine Quinto (03-3477-5905), Toho Cinemas Roppongi Hills (050-6868-5024).

Minamata home page in Japanese

photo (c) 2020 Minamata Film LLC (c) Larry Horricks

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