Johnny Depp returns to form in poignant tale of industrial pollution

Minamata tells the true and poignant story of a famous photographer’s talk about mercury poisoning in a Japanese fishing village. Thousands of people, including children, have been killed, disfigured and permanently disabled due to serious neurological problems. Johnny Depp returns to the peak of his acting form as Eugene Smith, the Life photojournalist who brought the tragedy to the public at the risk of his life. Minamata portrays the ruthless greed of corporate profits over the sanctity of human life. And how the company has used the principles of Japanese culture to shame and suppress suffering.

In 1971, in New York, Gene Smith (Johnny Depp) was broke, on the verge of deportation and drowned his problems in alcohol. He mocked Life editor Robert Hayes (Bill Nighy) for turning a valuable magazine into commercial nonsense. Hayes respected Smith’s brilliant photographic work but had no room for his drunken antics. Smith’s descent into oblivion comes to an abrupt halt after a visit from a Japanese translator, Aileen Mioko (Minami), and her colleague, Tatsuo Matsumura (Tadanobu Asano).

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The couple bring news clippings about the Japanese fishing village of Minamata. Residents were plagued with varying levels of mercury poisoning. Chisso, a powerful chemical company, had been dumping toxic waste into the nearby ocean for years. Gene Smith convinces Robert Hayes to send him to Japan. A stranger in a strange land, he is deeply affected by the plight of the villagers. Their disfigured bodies, their trembling limbs and their almost catatonic children urge him to act. He painstakingly photographs Minamata, but quickly finds himself on the radar of Chisso’s ruthless CEO (Jun Kunimara).

We see events in Minamata from Gene Smith’s perspective. Aileen guides him through cultural differences, but he truly is the proverbial fish out of the water. Smith is shocked by the state of the residents. Every family had been touched, but only a few spoke or allowed themselves to be photographed. They were embarrassed to face their attackers. The film tackles this problem with a skillful hand. Smith had to gain the trust of the villagers to become their champion.

Andrew Levitas, producer of over a dozen independent films, is writer and director of Minamata. He and award-winning French cinematographer Benoît Delhomme (The Proposal, The Theory of Everything) use different artistic tools to show Eugene Smith’s journey. He shot exclusively in austere black and white. Filmmakers use stills and 16MM handheld cameras to envelop audiences. The change in format and filmstrip gives Minamata a guerrilla approach at key points. You feel the struggle of the characters between David and Goliath. It’s a constant reminder of cruel evil, oppressive tactics, and Chisso’s blatant disregard for anything but money.

Johnny Depp’s personal life has been the fodder of the tabloids for years. It’s great to see him back on screen as a captivating lead actor. Eugene Smith had an interesting personality. He was an extremely talented photographer, but he had given up on a meaningful life. Depp plays the character through a spectrum of achievement. Smith finds a goal and a partner in Aileen. The role also has a physical aspect which becomes progressively more important. Chisso does not hesitate to resort to violence.

Industrial pollution wreaks havoc on the environment and affects life. Minamata disease is a glaring example of the worst-case scenario, and the unfortunate efforts innocent people must make to maintain healthy communities. This event happened fifty years ago at a time when it took an intrepid photographer to sound the alarm bells. There is no excuse in the modern world of instant information and documentation. Yet polluting companies persist with very little recourse from governments. Minamata is a production of Ingenious and Metalwork Pictures. It is currently in limited theatrical release from HanWay Films.


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