Director: Andrew Levitas
Runtime: 115 minutes
Cast: Johnny Depp, Minami Hinase, Bill Nighy, Hiroyuki Sanada
Synopsis: War photographer W. Eugene Smith travels back to Japan where he documents the devastating effect of mercury poisoning in coastal communities.
This searing drama from Andrew Levitas [Lullaby (2014)] details the campaigning work of pioneering US photographer Eugene Smith in exposing catastrophic corporate negligence.
New York, 1971. Following his celebrated days as one of the most revered photojournalists of World War II, W. Eugene Smith (an almost unrecognisable Johnny Depp) has become a recluse, disconnected from society and his career. But a secret commission from Life magazine editor Robert Hayes (Bill Nighy) sends him to the Japanese coastal city of Minamata, which has been ravaged by mercury poisoning; the result of decades of gross industrial negligence by the country’s Chisso Corporation.
There, Smith immerses himself in the community, documenting their efforts to live with Minamata Disease and their passionate campaign to achieve recognition from Chisso and the Japanese government. Armed with only his trusted camera, Smith’s images from the toxic village give the disaster a heartbreaking human dimension, and his initial assignment turns into a life-changing experience.
As Smith investigates and record the activities of the Chisso Corporation he discovers that their releasing industrial waste into the bay surrounding the city of Minamata results in its population succumb to terrible diseases brought on by poisoning. What Smith’s reporting reveals is the scale of the chemical dumping, its impact and the coercion employed by big business, local government and law enforcement in covering up what had happened.
Levitas’ film was mostly shot in Serbia, which doubles up impressively as Japan in Benoît Delhomme’s stunning cinematography.
Unlike the Todd Haynes’ Dark Waters, which employed a cool approach to the role of US conglomerate DuPont in a West Virginia pollution case, Minamata throws us into the action as if we are witnessing what is taking place as Smith records it. Depp impresses as the photographer, ably capturing his destructive tendencies, but giving us a sense of Smith’s brilliance as he throws himself deeper into the lives of the Japanese community.
A superb score from Ryuichi Sakamoto emotionally evokes the suffering of the people of Minamata. Tomoko Uemura in Her Bath the black-and-white photograph which many regard as Smith’s greatest work taken in 1971 is also included in the film.
In cinemas and streaming
Images courtesy of Vertigo Releasing.