Review: Films Set In Japan – Minamata (2020)

Here`s Johnny …… and he`s back on top form in this truly heartfelt contemplative real-life social drama about war photographer William Eugene Smith who travels back to Japan to document the devastating effects of mercury poisoning in a coastal community of Kumamoto Prefecture.

Even though I`ve known about `Minamata` being in the works for a few years I never did any research as to what it meant or what it was about. Subsequently I had absolutelyno knowledge of the story or the city until I was lucky enough to be able to see it recently. The release of this film, directed by Andrew Levitas, has sadly been effected quite badly by Covid_19 but it looks like it`ll start to pop up in cinemas around the world this year.

Warning: Contains spoilers!

The story may take place in the early 1970s but it really does resonate with what is happening in the world today. It seems incredible in this day and age that a photographer (albeit a renowned one) had the power to bring this story to the public via the cover of Life magazine but that was the way things were. The little man (or woman) fighting against a big company theme is of course nothing new but many people enjoy learning about such historical events with the most obvious comparison perhaps being `Erin Brockovich` (2000).

It`s not an easy subject matter at times, and as soon as the backdrop switches to the scenic coastal setting of Kumamoto, the mood changes from the more jovial office politics of the U.S. to seeing how families are suffering. This is not the film for anyone expecting an action-packed, thrilling sequence of shots as it is a slow moving and thought-provoking 115 minute drama which is deeply moving at times.

Despite his huge fame, I have to admit that I haven`t watched so much of Johnny Depp`s back catalogue. He is of course well known for his portrayal of slightly quirky and unique fictional characters (Scissorhands, Wonka, Sparrow etc) but there is a different atmosphere here as he responsibly and truthfully plays the multi-dimensional photojournalist.

Eugene Smith is a man of heart, humour and integrity but he`s also one who is overly reliant on alcohol to mask his own self-loathing. He self destructs and gets knocked down time and time again (both figuratively and literally) but eventually manages to get the locals on side and help him get the message out to the world via his poignant pictures, some of which will stick in your mind for a long time.

It`s not just Depp who is great but there`s a strong supporting cast too. Minami was highly impressive as Aileen who is able to give Smith a look that makes him change his mind instantly when he initially expresses that he isn`t so keen on something. Bill Nighy is always good but perhaps doesn`t get enough screen time, and that is likewise for Hiroyuki Sanada who plays the role of a lead protester against the evil Chisso Corporation. Jun Kunimura is very convincing as the beleaguered boss of the company that`s been dumping industrial wastewater into the ocean.

The film is not without flaws though as it naturally may be too slow and serious for some. It probably could`ve been shorter as it does subside a little in the middle with some subplots about helping a young victim hone his photography skills. For a film where we see Smith pointing his camera a fair bit, there are plenty of words of wisdom such as not getting emotional about the subject matter and focusing on the photo you want to take and what you want it to say.

It was filmed in Belgrade (Serbia) and Minamata itself, and the director takes time to allow a sensitive familiarity with various victims and their families through the eyes of Smith as he sheds some light on those fighting to bring Chisso to justice. It`s a frustrating ordeal at times but it is dealt with in a dignified and touching fashion.

Tokyo Fox Rating 8/10

About tokyofox

A Leicester City fan teaching English in Japan
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1 Response to Review: Films Set In Japan – Minamata (2020)

  1. Pingback: Review: Films Set In Japan – Kate (2021) | Tokyo Fox (東京狐)

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