A review of a movie about a Japanese village that suffered from industrial pollution.
There are some places that stand in for an entire phenomenon. Invoke “Bhopal” or “Chernobyl” and (at least to those in the know) a host of connotations and meanings spring forth. Unfortunately a lot more environmental disasters caused by valuing profit over people continue to occur. The result is some of these names lose their potency in the publics’ collective mind. There’s just too much bad stuff happening even when the global economic system of capitalism is functioning ‘normally’. To help jog our memories and to maintain our knowledge of a terrible example of what has happened, we have Minamata.
For those unfamiliar with the meaning of Minamata…in short, there was a company called Chisso. They made various chemical products and spent years knowingly pumping mercury contaminated water into the waters around the small Japanese village of Minamata. The locals ate the fish in those waters and as a consequence their children were born with a variety of physical and cognitive deformities. Chisso tried all sorts of tactics to avoid responsibility for what they had done. They fought against members of the community who tried to gain compensation and an admission of guilt.
Liberal Hollywood tends to take a patronising view when considering making ‘foreign’ based issue movies. On the one hand the honourable impulse is to want to tell the public about a problem. On the other, there’s the idea that the folks in Boise, Idaho wont go to watch such a product unless they have a famous acting face to relate to. Its a shame there is a lack of faith in the intelligence of movie goers to empathise with a story, whether there is a big name actor attached or not. Finances and artistic integrity are locked in a nasty dialectic and often the money wins.
Minamata follows the conventional path by not opening with a focus on the people of the village but the American photographer Eugene Smith (Johnny Depp). The first section is a character study of Smith. He physically resembles a sort of Che Guevara/beatnik hybrid and Depp is impressively unrecognisable at first under the beret and grey beard. Smith was a once famous war photographer who by 1971 has become a has-been. He is virtually broke, estranged from his offspring and spends his time both in the dark and in dark rooms, spouting a mixture of alcohol-induced self-pity and semi-philosophical aphorisms about his art. He receives a knock on the door of his garret from two Japanese folks who need his name to draw attention to the plight of the people in Minamata. Will he reject their plea and descend into an early grave or acceed to their request and eventually regain his self-respect and professional stature by drawing the world’s attention to their cause? No points for guessing the answer.
One person who deserves mention here is Bill Nighy as Robert Hayes, the editor of LIFE magazine, who has a prickly relationship with Smith and agrees to send him to Japan to cover the story. Nighy has made a career out of playing upper middle class Englishmen who are slightly eccentric, absent-minded professor types. Here he is cast against type in the sort of role you would probably have seen in a 1990s’ cop movie as ‘Angry Captain chewing out rogue cop-hero’. Nighy is American here and has a competent accent but more significantly, the bursts of energy and anger he projects during excahnges with Depp are refreshing when coming from him. Hopefully we get to see more of that Nighy in future roles.
The second section takes place in Japan. It moves at a nicely glacial pace that allows us to acclimatise to the people and environment through Smith’s experiences. It is in this part that the photographer rediscovers his sense of purpose in his profession through encountering the victims. In some ways this is the most satisfying section. Depp’s acting is the best and understated he has done in a long time. There are no flashy gimmicks and he plays drunk very well. He is ably assisted by Minami Hinase as Aileen, who befriends and falls in love with Smith while acting as his local translator and assistant. She brings a modesty and sense of purpose that gently nudges Smith back on track when needed.
Section three fortunately makes an effort to bring voice to the locals. Without this, the film would probably have been better titled ‘Smith’. The main person we meet representing the locals is Mitsuo Yamazaki (Hiroyuki Sanada), who heads a community pressure group that organises protests against Chisso. Sanada has become the ‘go to guy’ when Hollywood needs a Japanese male with gravitas. His handsomeness and natural dignity are what initially draw you in, but his range as an actor is what sticks. He can quietly convince but is also capable of shouting indignantly to a crowd and bringing you along with him, despite any language barrier. As noted above, there is sufficient power in Sanada’s acting and the other Japanese actors that an engaging story could be told without reference to any outside person. However, Smith genuinely did play a major part in bringing the cause of Minamata to wider global attention. What the implications are for how the world works and who matters in it, should be clear from this.
To conclude, Minamata is a small, quiet movie that brings you into its orbit through its pacing and solid acting. It can be faulted for its choice of protagonist and consequent perspective but ultimately it is good such a movie exists at all. It reminds us of the consequences of private corporations and their enablers in government, continuing to run roughshod over the lives of ordinary people around the world.