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War photographer W. Eugene Smith travels back to Japan where he documents the devastating effect of mercury poisoning in coastal communities.
Minamata is a 2020 drama film directed by Andrew Levitas, based on the book of the same name by Aileen Mioko Smith and Eugene Smith. The film stars Johnny Depp (who also produced) as Smith, an American photographer who documented the effects of mercury poisoning on the citizens of Minamata, Kumamoto, Japan.
The film premiered at the Berlin International Film Festival on February 21, 2020. It was to be released in the United States theatres on February 5, 2021, by American International Pictures (the company’s first film since How to Beat the High Cost of Living (1980), and in those of the United Kingdom on February 12, 2021, by Vertigo Releasing. However, the release was delayed due to the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic on cinema.
In 1971, the American photographer W. Eugene Smith is famous for his numerous “photographic essays” published in Life, but he becomes a recluse. While on a separate assignment, a passionate Japanese translator, Aileen, urges Smith to visit Minimata to photograph and document the disease. Smith is finally convinced to do his best to unmask the devastating effects of corporate greed, an accomplice of the local police and government. He travels to Minamata in Japan to document the devastating effect of mercury poisoning and Minamata disease in coastal communities. This disease is caused by industrial pollution linked to the activities of the chemical company Chisso. Armed with only his Minolta camera against a powerful company, Smith must win the trust of the broken community and find the images that will bring this story to the world. While there, Smith becomes the victim of severe reprisals. He is therefore urgently repatriated to the United States. However, this report will make him an icon of photojournalism.
Minamata is not a masterpiece and there are one or two cliches here about western saviours and boozy, difficult, passionate journalists who occupy the perennial Venn diagram overlap between integrity and alcoholism. This movie’s producer-star Johnny Depp has form on this score, with his starstruck impersonation of Hunter Thompson. And once again, he has chosen a role in which he wears a hat indoors. But Minamata is a forthright, heartfelt movie, an old-fashioned “issue picture” with a worthwhile story to tell about how communities can stand up to overweening corporations and how journalists dedicated to truthful news can help them.
Depp plays real-life US photojournalist W Eugene Smith whose glory days were in the second world war and the decades following, working for Life magazine in that now-forgotten era when analogue cameras were incapable of lying and magazines with compelling photos could command newsstand sales.
Of course, the hard-nosed professional in Smith knows that pictures of sick children, carefully and tactfully managed, are going to deliver the biggest punch and he became famous for a picture that heartbroken and intensely private parents were at first reluctant to give him: Tomoko Uemura in Her Bath, the Pietà-esque black and white photograph of a mother cradling her sick daughter in a traditional Japanese tub. Director Andrew Levitas gives us a context-free glimpse of this challenging image at the beginning of the film and builds to its eventful composition as his emotional finale.
Perhaps its use here is a little glib, but the film does at least emphasise a kind of journalism that is at the service of the people that it depicts. And it reminds of a time when the environmental debate was about pollution, not climate change – although that issue has not by any stretch gone away. Over its closing credits, Minamata concludes with a list of grotesque and often unpunished “spills” including Bhopal, Deepwater Horizon and more. Perhaps these are the microcosmic crimes and our fossil-fuel use is the larger, global issue. At any rate, Minamata is a decent reminder of what is still to be done.
Peter Bradshaw, The Guardian