It may be simplistic in the way it covers an infamous mass industrial poisoning and cover-up, in tidying up the untidy “relationship” part of the story.
And “Minamata” may star Johnny Depp, an actor given to making drunks “cute,” and someone who has “fallen from grace” and lost much of his career due to a messy divorce and a British court deciding he was an abusive drunk during that marriage.
But “Minamata” is far too worthy a film to go unreleased. It’s still a fascinating, moving and pretty much by-the-book true account of what happened to the Japanese villagers who lived too close to a chemical plant that dumped mercury into the sea where they got their fish.
Like Love Canal, New York and Bhopal, India, Minamata is a town whose name became infamous thanks to a major corporation’s callous attitudes towards pollution and human life. The Chisso Corp. dumped mercury into the bay for decades, and for a decade and a half covered up what they knew they were doing to people who ate fish there. The film is about the struggle to get the world to pay attention in the pre-Internet media provincialism of the 1960s and 70s.
The locals noticed their pets sickening and dying of this “cat dancing disease.” They saw birth defects in their children and adults developing tremors and life-shortening health issues. But in media-controlled “rapid growth” post-WWII Japan, the government refused to act and the company kept on covering up and refusing to acknowledge its guilt.
It wasn’t until a legendary photographer/photo-essayist, W. Eugene Smith was talked into visiting that the story became a global scandal.
Depp plays Smith as the beret-wearing iconoclast that he was, something of an alcoholic burnout when we meet him in 1971. His Life Magazine editor (Bill Nighy) has lost faith in him for all the usual journalistic burnout movie reasons — flouting deadlines, alcoholic unreliability.
“Don’t waste what time you’ve got left,” the editor hisses as he escorts Smith to the door.
But Smith agreed to do this short Japanese commercial for Fujifilm, and the translator on that endorsement, Aileen (Minami, of “Vision” and “Battle Royale”) mentions this awful thing going on in Japan. That’s the last place the ex-combat photographer wants to go. Still, there’s a pitch even a “dumb–s” editor couldn’t turn down.
Once there, Smith is immersed in village life, trying to pry photographs out of people who don’t want to rock the boat, who fear Chisso and their government and who feel a personal shame in letting themselves or their children be photographed.
Local activists (Hiroyuki Sanada among them) know that “if we make a noise loud enough,” the company and the government “won’t have a choice” in terms of hearing them out. That’s where Smith comes in. If only he could photograph some of the faces.
“Seeing what’s going on behind the eyes, it’s an empathy thing” he explains to one caregiver.
As Smith and the translator visit protests and befriend victims, sneak into the heavily guarded “company” hospital, as Smith is dragged in to meet and be charmed by the company chairman (Jun Kunimara), as the police harassment and beatings begin, with Smith drinking from a handy flask or brown bag all along the way, we wonder if this “noise loud enough” will ever be turned into the photographs that will shake the world.
Depp’s probably played too many drunks for his own good — professionally or legally. This one is charming, almost cute but plainly haunted.
“You hands shake,” a local notes. “Do you have Minamata disease?” “No, I just drink a bunch.”
Minami’s not given much to play with, and her English enunciation is a bit tough to plow through at times. Sanada gives us a blast of righteous fury, and Nighy’s just here for the curmudgeonly chewing outs.
But the victims are sympathetically-portrayed by a wide selection of actors (Akiko Iwase and Ryô Kase stand out). And co-writer/director Andrew Levitas (“Lullaby”) gives his stars the proper heart-breaking set-up for “the shot” that the name Minamata is famous for.
I had never seen the photo, but the name of the town lives on, in updates to the tragedy (the Japanese government is well-practiced in denial, when it comes to WWII or corporate crimes) and in documentaries like “The Cove,” where one can wonder why the Japanese keep killing dolphins in their waters because they’re contaminated by mercury.
“Minamata” doesn’t have the punch or paranoia of “Silkwood.” But I’d say Levitas, Depp & Co. have delivered a “message movie” with as much pathos and righteousness as the pollution lawsuit drama “Dark Waters.” And at least this one isn’t about a heroic lawyer.
Rating: R for language (profanity) throughout
Cast: Johnny Depp, Minami, Hiroyuki Sanada, Akiko Iwase, Ryô Kase, Jun Kunimura and Bill Nighy.
Credits: Directed by Andrew Levitas, scripted by David Kessler, Stephen Deuters and Andrew Levitas. A Samuel Goldwyn release.
Running time: 1:51