Minamata: a solid film on the power of image as social activism

Andrew Levitas, “Minamata” (2020)

In these times when fake news and deliberate disinformation are the norm in mainstream news media, here comes a very welcome, solid film on environmental pollution and its lasting effects on two, even three generations of families, and on the power of image to convey this message and call for justice for the families made victims by the pollution. “Minamata” is based on events that took place in the early 1970s to bring the suffering of the victims of what was then known as Minamata disease – actually the effects of environmental mercury poisoning – to world attention. Johnny Depp plays US photojournalist W Eugene Smith, world-weary and with his life in tatters, who is approached by two Japanese fans of his work in 1971. The two fans, of whom one is Aileen (Minami), persuade him to follow them back to their home town of Minamata, a one-company town on Kyushu island, to document the injuries and deformities suffered by Minamata town residents. Smith grudgingly accepts and accompanies the two activists on what is supposedly a three-month assignment. Once there, Smith gradually becomes more involved in the lives of the Minamata families, befriending a teenage boy suffering from Minamata disease and teaching him photography; he himself eventually becomes an activist participating in and visually recording protests against the Chisso company which has been discharging mercury into local waters. The Chisso company discovers the American living in the Minamata community and, after failing to bribe Smith, ramps up the harassment and violence against the community and Smith himself. His studio is burned down and much of his work is destroyed, and the photojournalist realises he must try to persuade the Minamata community to work more closely with him and allow him to photograph affected family members if he is to get their message to the outside world.

While the film revolves around Depp’s performance, excellent as it is for most of the time he is on screen, he allows his fellow cast members including Minami as Aileen, Tadanobu Asano and Hiroyuki Sanada as activist leaders and Jun Kunimura as the Chisso company president their moments in the spotlight. Minami’s character is basically supportive but is upfront when it needs to be. Kunimura puts in a powerful performance as the president who tries to bribe Smith and is then later forced to admit the company’s culpability for the harm caused by his company to Minamata residents. Though Depp himself occasionally lapses into his kookly old Hunter S Thompson character from “Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas” which he made back in 1998, his portrayal of Smith as initially gruff and cynical (this appearance hiding deep self-loathing, past trauma and lack of purpose in life) and then later turning into social crusader with a cause that consumes his life seems credible. The film does a good job detailing the menace that hired uniformed goons present to Smith and the Minamata residents, less so on how the issue of mercury poisoning divides the community, especially as so many people in Minamata depend on the company for employment.

The film’s cinematography highlights Minamata town’s charms as a rural seaside village, focusing at times on villagers’ activities such as drying fish or on children playing in the town park where Smith first meets the teenage boy. Over the course of the film the background settings become important in advancing the film’s narrative and message as historical film reels are mixed into the live-action scenes and some scenes are recreations of actual photographs taken by the real-life W Eugene Smith.

The action may be slow and the plot doesn’t rev up until quite late in the film but the slow pace allows viewers, like Smith himself, to fully immerse themselves into the life of Minamata as drawn by Levitas and his capable cast. By the end of the film audiences may well find themselves rooting for Smith, Aileen and her fellow activists. However the end title credits present a very sobering conclusion to their efforts: to date, the Minamata community has still not been fully compensated for its suffering by the Chisso company and the Japanese government.