Minamata

Director: Andrew Levitas
Screenplay: David Kessler (based on Minamata by Aileen Mioko Smith & Eugene Smith)
Stars: Johnny Depp (W. Eugene Smith), Hiroyuki Sanada (Mitsuo Yamazaki), Minami Hinase (Aileen), Bill Nighy (Robert Hayes), Jun Kunimura (Junichi Nojima), Tadanobu Asano (Tatsuo Matsumura), Ryo Kase (Kiyoshi), Katherine Jenkins (Millie), Akiko Iwase (Masako Matsumura)
MPAA Rating: R
Year of Release: 2020
Country: U.S. / U.K.
Minamata
Minamata

W. Eugene Smith was one of the great photojournalists of the 20th century. More than just a brilliant and prolific photographer, he was a consummate storyteller, a man who built his career around the idea that an image is a story unto itself that carries with it inordinate power, especially when put together with other images. Out of this idea Smith developed the concept of the editorial photo essay, many of which he produced during the course of his multi-decade career, which saw him covering stories as serene as that of a country doctor and as violent as that of the Pacific theater in World War II. He was, like so many great artists, a complex man who often succumbed to his own demons, particularly via alcohol and drugs, but nevertheless left an indelible stamp on the very history he recorded.

In Andrew Levitas’s Minamata, Johnny Depp, virtually unrecognizable under age makeup, glasses, frizzled hair, and a gray beard, plays Smith in the latter years of his life, when he was already a legend in the world of photojournalism, but was nevertheless on the brink of obsolescence—drunk, tired, broke, and alone. It was during this time, however, that he produced his last and arguably greatest photo essay on the poisoning of the people in Minamata, a small Japanese fishing village. Minamata was the site of a huge chemical factory run by the Chisso Corporation, which for decades had been dumping methylmercury into the bay, which polluted the water and the fish that swam in it. The villagers were unknowingly ingesting dangerous levels of mercury, which poisoned their bodies and led to the so-called “Minamata Disease,” in which their bodies were physically contorted, their senses eroded, their nervous systems decimated. Worst of all, pregnant women passed the poisoning on to the babies inside their wombs, damning their children to a short life of lingering death before they were ever born.

The screenplay by newcomer David Kessler from the book Smith wrote about his experiences in Minamata in the early 1970s along with his Japanese wife, Aileen Mioko Smith, takes some expected liberties with the story to give it a more traditional dramatic arc. Depp plays Smith as more of a reluctant witness to the horrors, even though it is he who brings the story to Robert Hayes (Bill Nighy), the editor of Life magazine with whom he has had a long and acrimonious relationship (the bitter conversations between the two men are necessary, but one of the film’s more overwrought aspects). Smith is first made aware of the situation by Aileen (Minami Hinase), who the film depicts as a growing romantic interest, rather than his wife. Even though he has already seen so many horrors through his camera lens, Smith is nevertheless moved by the plight of the Minamata villagers, many of whom band together to fight for justice from Chisso, but find resistance at every turn—from the corporation, from the Japanese government, and even from their fellow villagers who need employment with the chemical giant to survive.

Smith doesn’t have his consciousness raised so much as he forgets his own troubles—which include a lack of money and too many burned bridges to count, including those with his own grown children—and loses himself in the urgency of the villagers’ cause, which is spearheaded by a man named Mitsuo Yamazaki (Hiroyuki Sanada). Soon, Smith is not just taking photographs, but going on guerilla missions into the company’s hospital to witness victims firsthand and rifle through desk drawers and file cabinets. Chisso’s CEO, Junichi Nojima (Jun Kunimura), is made aware of Smith’s presence and tries to buy him off, and the film makes the rather odd decision to try to wring some suspense out of the situation by delaying the revelation of Smith’s response. It is one of the film’s few outright missteps, but it is quickly forgotten in the flow of events, which include the company burning down Smith’s makeshift photo lab and beating him during a protest.

This means, of course, that the film has at its core the potentially troublesome concept of the “white savior,” wherein a white American arrives in a foreign country (the more exotic, the better) and somehow improves it. However, Minamata works consistently to undermine such a narrative, first by emphasizing that Smith, whatever his involvement, was primarily a documentarian of the movement to force Chisso to own up its malfeasance, not the driving force, and second by focusing on the Japanese villagers who were driving the movement, specifically Mitsuo and Aileen. Smith’s photography played a vital role in alerting the rest of the world to Minamata’s plight, and he suffered for his involvement, but he is in no way presented as a savior. If anything, Depp’s portrayal of Smith’s alcoholism, cynicism, and bouts of intense depression give the character a hard edge the makes any simplistic “hero” labels difficult to stick.

The violence the company wages against Smith and the villagers who seek justice for their inflictions is disturbing and rings all the more loudly in an era in which more and more environmental protections are being discarded (at the time of this writing, the Trump Administration in the U.S. has repealed or weakened almost 100 environmental regulations, many of which relate to clean water). Chisso is presented as a villainous entity that puts money ahead of humanity at every turn, and their overwhelming presence is signified by the trio of massive smokestacks rising out of the center of their factory and encased by a twisting mass of pipes and girders that look like a Terry Gilliam-esque dystopian nightmare.

This would seem to make the film dangerously one-sided, but there isn’t much balance to be had. History has shown that Chisso was not just neglectful, but downright malicious in its actions (the very definition of corporate sociopathy), resulting in the villagers’ twisted limbs, sightless eyes, and wordless mouths. Not surprisingly, the film’s greatest and most moving moment dramatizes the pietà-like photograph Smith took of Ryoko Uemura and her 16-year-old daughter Tomoko, who was born with Minamata Disease. It would become one of Smith’s most iconic works, and Levitas captures it with the same grave balance between beauty and tragedy that continues to define the image itself. Levitas, who began his career as a painter and sculptor and previously wrote and directed the drama Lullaby (2014), does solid work here, especially in collaboration with cinematographer Benoît Delhomme, who most recently worked with painter-turned-director Julian Schnabel on Eternity’s Gate (2018). They strike a good balance between jagged handheld work and more elegant tracking shots, which conveys both the intimacy of the characters’ experiences and the larger, life-and-death situation into which they have been thrust.

Copyright © 2020 James Kendrick

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All images copyright © Metalwork Pictures

Overall Rating: (3)



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