'Minamata': Film Review | Berlin 2020

Credit: Larry D. Horricks
A good story too obviously told.

Johnny Depp stars as photojournalist W. Eugene Smith, whose moving pictures of the environmental tragedy in Minamata, Japan, marked a high point in his career.

Johnny Depp in the role of acclaimed photojournalist W. Eugene Smith is the most fortunate thing about Minamata, the impassioned account of a real-life environmental tragedy in Japan caused by industrial negligence. The battle waged by the residents of a small coastal town, mostly fishermen and their families, to stop a chemical factory from pouring toxic waste into the sea and the fish they eat makes for a chilling tale of greed and horror, with parallels to the Erin Brockovich story. Only here, director Andrew Levitas and his co-screenwriters dramatize a riveting story using a mass of groan-worthy genre clichés that ill-serve the truth they are trying to recreate.

Levitas, who tackled the controversial subject of assisted suicide in his first feature, Lullaby, communicates his outrage at the callousness and self-serving greed of the Chisso factory owners of Minimata, Japan, whose toxic dumping precipitated a neurological disease caused by severe mercury poisoning that killed thousands and destroyed the lives of unborn babies and children. It’s the kind of important story that demands sensitive handling and insights, whereas here every plot development seems written by the numbers, undercutting a sense of realism. 

The wild card that should anyway draw audiences is Depp, amusingly unrecognizable behind an unkempt gray beard, wire rim glasses and a natty beret. He effortlessly captures the bohemian contrariness of the brilliant war photographer Gene Smith as he approaches the end of his career plagued by debts, alcohol, nightmares and disillusionment. A good deal of his work, like his award-winning coverage of World War II in the Pacific, had been published by Life magazine and its gentleman-editor Robert Hayes (Bill Nighy), but as the opening scenes in New York make clear, Gene has reached the end of his tether. He even sells his cameras to better dedicate himself to booze, pills and self-destruction. At this point (it’s 1971) there is a knock on his door and two Japanese appear; using a subterfuge, they enlist his aid in publicizing the ongoing tragedy in Minamata.

At first Gene resists, but his crass indifference is no match for the determination of Aileen (Minami), who gets his attention less with her beauty than with a packet of newspaper clippings about what is going on. His batteries abruptly recharged, Gene bounds into the Manhattan offices of Life, where he demands and gets the green light from Hayes to head to Japan and shoot “the story of the decade.”

As Gene and Aileen reach the idyllic Japanese village on the sea, the brusque, me-first American appears an awkward outsider around his hyper-polite hosts, the Matsumuras. Their daughter, Akiko, is a victim of the Minamata disease, and she is completely dependent on her family for survival. Her father initially refuses to let Gene photograph her emaciated and deformed body.

But he gets many other heart-breaking shots of teenagers with leg braces and overgrown fingers and elderly women receiving treatment in the Chisso factory hospital. In one scene, based on something that really happened but shot in a way that hits all the most familiar buttons, Aileen, Gene and Kiyoshi (Ryo Kase), an activist who is in the early stages of the disease, waltz into the hospital with rucksacks full of still and film cameras and shoot everything in sight, then burglarize the hospital file room and discover a secret lab full of monstrous animals, as well as proof the company knew it was poisoning the community with mercury for the last fifteen years. Then they dash out by the back staircase.

If scenes like this do nothing to win the viewer’s confidence in the veracity of the based-on-reality tale as told, Levitas doubles the dose when Gene is later given a tour of the factory by its evil prexy (Jun Kunimura), who tries to get rid of him with a large bribe. This, too, really happened, but did it happen on the rooftop of the building with overtones of Satan tempting our hero? In any case, Kunimura is the epitome of corporate greed, and he has the police and government behind him.

In contrast, there is an odd reticence about depicting the exact nature of Gene’s relationship with the willing Aileen, who sleeps in the same room but on a separate tatami. No one in the village remarks on this arrangement, and somehow it seems to be part of Gene’s habitual escape from responsibility. Every time there’s a difficulty or someone gets hurt, he’s off on a binge, putting his mission aside to keep from feeling any pain. (Cue more nightmares.) Depp’s over-long monologues in this dopey condition can be funny, but they win his character no friends. 

Rightly, quite a bit of space is given to the local anti-poisoning committee lead by firebrand Mitsuo Yamazaki (Hiroyuki Sanada) thundering “It’s the last battle for humanity!” in a baritone. They have spent years fighting the Chisso company, and there is a sense that for all Gene’s on-again, off-again intentions to draw worldwide attention to their cause, the locals must ultimately decide their own fate.  

The Japanese supporting cast brings some much-needed realism to the story. While the disease victims avoid pathos, Minami displays a melancholic determination that puts Gene’s flip-flopping to shame. As his editor, Nighy makes a superbly credible New Yorker who has the character to put his righteous anger and disappointment aside to deal with a photographer of genius.

The location work, which was done in Japan, Serbia and Montenegro, includes memorable images of the sinister factory smokestacks and an idyllic bay whose deceptively calm waters are so deadly. The tech work led by Benoit Delhomme's cinematography is eye-catching, even garish at times, and always professional looking. In addition to some period songs, the score by composer Ryuichi Sakamoto (The Revenant) establishes an authentic atmosphere.

Production companies: Metalworks Pictures, Infinitum Nihil
Cast: Johnny Depp, Hiroyuki Sanada, Bill Nighy, Jun Kunimura, Minami, Ryo Kase, Tadanobu Asano, Akiko Iwase
Director: Andrew Levitas
Screenwriters: David K. Kessler, Andrew Levitas, Jason Forman, Stephen Deuters
Producers: Sam Sarkar, Kevan Van Thompson, Andrew Levitas, Johnny Depp
Director of photography: Benoit Delhomme
Production designer: Tom Foden
Costume designer: Momirka Bailovic
Editor: Nathan Nugent
Music: Ryuichi Sakamoto
Casting director: Yoko Narahashi
Venue: Berlin Film Festival (Berlinale Special Gala)
World sales: HanWay Films
115 minutes

In English and Japanese
No rating