MINAMATA movie poster | ©2022 Samuel Goldwyn Films

MINAMATA movie poster | ©2022 Samuel Goldwyn Films

Rating: R
Stars: Johnny Depp, Hiroyuki Sanada, Jun Kunimura, Minami, Ryo Kase, Tadanobu Asano, Akiko Iwase, Bill Nighy
Writers: David K. Kessler, Stephen Deuters, Andrew Levitas, Jason Forman, based on the book MINAMATA by Aileen Mioko Smith and W. Eugene Smith
Director: Andrew Levitas
Distributor: Samuel Goldwyn Films
Release Date: April 8, 2022 (VOD/Digital); December 15, 2021 (theatrical)

MINAMATA is one of those movies where the subject matter feels so urgent that is overwhelms most issues we might otherwise have with the storytelling.

After showing us footage of one woman tenderly bathing another, whose face is contorted in a silent scream, MINAMATA tells us it is “based on true events.” More specifically, as we learn in the end credits, it is based on the nonfiction book of the same name by Aileen Mioko Smith and W. Eugene Smith, the latter a very famous photographer.

When we meet the film’s Eugene (Johnny Depp) in 1971 New York, he’s broke, drunk, drug-addled, selling off his equipment to make rent, and pretty much ready to give up on everything. His glory days of war photography are both behind him and still haunting him.

This doesn’t stop Eugene from dropping in on Robert Hayes (Bill Nighy), his former editor at Life Magazine, and haranguing him about how commercial the news business has become.

But then Eugene’s curiosity is piqued by Japanese visitor Aileen (Minami), who wants him to document the “Minamata” disease. After all the expected refusals and attempts at avoidance, Eugene agrees to go to Japan to take photos, and sells an understandably worried Hayes on the notion that this will be a high-caliber spread for Life.

In 1971, coastal Minamata, Japan, is definitely a company town, with sixty percent of the population employed by the Chisso Corporation. Chisso makes chemicals, which unfortunately are making many people extremely sick. Adults have degenerative conditions, and babies are born with birth defects so severe that, if they survive, they often need lifelong care. The brain damage is identical to mercury poisoning. But Chisso refuses to stop what it’s doing or make financial reparations.

For his part, Eugene is divided between knowing how powerful his images can be, and reflexively trying to live down to his self-image as unreliable.

The images (the real Smith’s photos, used in the film) are transfixing and heartrending. Some scenes have great power, including those with the excellent Hiroyuki Sanada as a Minamata local, suffering from the disease, who has become an impassioned anti-Chisso activist. Nighy is superb, and Jun Kunimura has subtlety and sorrow as the main Chisso representative. The music score by Ryuichi Sakamoto provides quiet emotional ballast throughout.

It’s in the telling of Eugene’s story that MINAMATA gets somewhat bogged down. The problem is not with Depp’s performance, which hits all the right notes, but with both shape and emphasis.

In adapting the Smiths’ autobiographical book as a narrative feature, director Andrew Levitas and his co-screenwriters, David K. Kessler, Stephen Deuters, and Jason Forman, on the one hand understandably feel the need to service their source material.

On the other hand, they’re a bit blurry on what prompts Eugene’s huge swings in motivation. If this is what actually happened, it seems like there might be more to it. If the filmmakers are just amping it up for dramatic effect, it strikes the wrong notes. When, for example, Eugene impulsively gives his camera to a local boy, and the Minamata community has to come together to provide him a new one so he can document the ongoing catastrophe, we feel a surge or anger on their behalf. Haven’t these people been through enough without having to help out this self-sabotaging gaijin?

There’s also a meta issue of whose story this is, or should be. Yes, the Smith photos in Life magazine focused the world’s attention on Minamata, and yes, he literally bled for the cause. Then again, we don’t get enough context here to have a fix on how this affected Smith’s ultimate trajectory. From what we are given, it seems like Eugene should be a supporting player in the Minamata drama, not the other way around.

The end titles tell us what happened after the onscreen action. They are also worth watching for their harrowing photos of industrial poisoning around the world, something that continues to this day with deadly consequences.

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