Sacrificed for the Prosperity of the Nation: Telling the Story of Minamata through Film

Promotional poster for Minamata (2022)
Image Credit: Samuel Goldwyn Films. (2022). Minamata [Poster].

Minamata (Andrew Levitas, director, 2020; Sakamoto Ryūichi, music; Benoît Delhomme, cinematography)

Inspired by true events in Minamata, Japan, where the Chisso chemical factory poisoned residents by dumping mercury into the sea from 1932 to 1968, Andrew Levitas’ film shows Minamata through the eyes of the great photojournalist W. Eugene Smith and Aileen Smith, who move there to document the suffering and struggles of the victims in the early 1970s. The Smiths’ 1972 article and photographs in LIFE magazine and their 1975 book Minamata made the story known to the world. Minamata disease became the symbol of both the dark side of Japan’s high economic growth and of the rise of its environmental citizens movement, and demonstrated that toxins we dump in the environment end up in our bodies.

Michelle Daigle and Timothy George offer a review of the film in the form of a taidan-style discussion.

Michelle Daigle: Several minutes into the film, Eugene Smith reminds LIFE editor Robert Hayes of the days “when the truth still mattered.” How does a feature film present the “truth” of Minamata?

Timothy George: The director Andrew Levitas lays out the big picture of Minamata disease accurately. Organic mercury from the Chisso factory was in the fish people ate. It made them sick; it killed people. The company denied responsibility. Many of the victims eventually organized and fought, both in and out of court, and eventually won in court. But the issue was not completely resolved, nor was it unique. Levitas makes all this clear, and more importantly his emotionally powerful film inspires his viewers in the right ways. How about you—do you think there can be truth in a film that is not a documentary and does not attempt to exactly recreate history?

Daigle: I think it is precisely because Minamata is not a documentary that Levitas is able to get at the essential truth. Unfettered by actual chronology, he pierces through to the emotional heart of Minamata disease to show the audience the social and political dynamics at play in the city. These are clearest when Shigeru, a congenital patient, asks Eugene “You are not afraid to touch me?” Shigeru’s question speaks to the longstanding physical and emotional disconnects between the patients, the Chisso Corporation, residents in the city, and the broader community.

George: Much of the film was inspired not just by the photographs in Eugene and Aileen Smith’s 1975 book Minamata, but also by the text in that book. An example drawn from what they wrote is the scene in the film where Gene is told by the company president: “The small amount [sic] of fishermen who claim that they’ve somehow been harmed by our methods … are the parts per million relative to the great amount, the great good.”

Daigle: Right, the people of Minamata were sacrificed for the prosperity of the nation.

George: If Eugene Smith is the central character, does the film avoid the potential trap of depicting a foreign (and male) savior coming in to rescue the victims of Minamata disease, thereby robbing them of their own agency?

Daigle: I think it is vulnerable to that criticism, but it’s important to keep in mind that the film audience is viewing the events through Eugene Smith’s eyes. We have no idea what the other characters in the film are doing—how they are invoking their own agency—out of the camera’s view. It isn’t until the final frames that we realize there had been an active lawsuit in court the entire time he was there. I actually feel that Eugene Smith is saved and redeemed by Minamata.

George: Smith is a flawed hero, and his redemption is a parallel story to that of the Minamata disease patients. At the start of the film he thinks his career is over, and is putting together his retrospective exhibit. He is addicted to painkillers and alcohol; he has PTSD and flashbacks from the war. Those flaws help avoid the “foreign savior” trap, and so does the shift in point of view as the film progresses. At first, we watch Eugene Smith as if the camera were a fly on the wall in his Manhattan loft—the camera is well above him some of the time—and we continue to watch him as he goes to Minamata with Aileen. But the point of view gradually shifts, becoming no longer us looking at him but us seeing Minamata through his eyes and his lens. He becomes less and less the central character, and the people of Minamata move more to center stage to become the heroes. Aileen Smith has written that it was because of these struggles by pollution victims that Japan passed pollution laws, so that the Japanese people, to the extent that they live in a cleaner country, have those victims to thank for it.

Daigle: I’d add that we have benefited from the struggles of pollution victims globally, too. Minamata disease taught us how some toxins bioaccumulate in the food chain to severely impact public health. Today, we have regulations to monitor and limit the mercury in the fish and shellfish we buy, and warnings to pregnant women about consuming too much of certain types of fish. And so, to get back to the film, Eugene Smith doesn’t save anyone. Really, it is the other way around.

George: What do you think about the visual look of the film, which cinematographer Benoît Delhomme worked so hard to achieve? In places the film even switches to black and white, or uses actual archival black and white films, or shows the Smiths’ own photos, including Eugene Smith’s photos from the battles of Iwo Jima and Okinawa. The movie was filmed mostly in Serbia and Montenegro but it clearly has a look and a mood informed by the photographs. What do you think Levitas and Delhomme wanted to achieve with this?

Daigle: The visual look and use of archival footage in the film is one of my favorite things about it. I loved how Delhomme took archival 8-millimeter footage and stitched it together with new scenes meant to mimic the mood and look of the original. When I first watched the film, it caught me by surprise because Delhomme’s cinematographic amalgam of archival material with the fictional footage is almost seamless. Ironically, I think the seamlessness of Levitas and Delhomme’s technique adds an element of emotional authenticity to Minamata that is lacking in more typical usages of similar archival materials, precisely because this footage and the Smiths’ own photographs are folded into the story itself—they aren’t B-roll used as a form of window dressing to tell a “factual” story.

George: Yes; it is beautifully done. Moreover, Levitas prepares us masterfully for the climactic scene, the taking of one of the most important photographs in history, “Tomoko in Her Bath” (though she is “Akiko” in the film.). You mentioned the episode when Shigeru asks, “You are not afraid to touch me?” and Gene replies “Why would I be?” before they hug. Later there is the moving scene when Gene is left to take care of Akiko while her mother and Aileen go to the market. Johnny Depp completely disappears into the role of Gene Smith here. He sits outside holding Akiko in his arms. Born blind, deaf, and paralyzed, she is a congenital Minamata disease victim. He covers her feet with his coat, and says “I’m not so good at this kind of thing. Sorry. You wanna touch my beard?” He rubs her hand on his beard, chuckles, and starts singing “Forever Young.” This foreshadows the bath scene, of course, because he’s holding her in the way her mother holds her in the bath, gazing into her eyes. This to me was the second most powerful scene in the film.

Daigle: I think that speaks to how Eugene Smith is redeemed. Oftentimes, redemption comes in forms that are not verbal. Rather, it has to do with touch or “skinship,” which is an important part of Japanese sociality. In Japan, the concept of mi (“body”) extends the body beyond the physical person to interpersonal relationships. As Eugene Smith is holding Akiko, he is being incorporated into her and her mother’s community—a community that redeems him through the sense of touch and bodily togetherness.

George: And this is a redemption for Smith, in part, for not having been such a good father. At the beginning of the film when Aileen interrupts him by knocking on his New York apartment door, he is recording an apologetic cassette tape message to his children, explaining that he has sold his equipment and wants the money to go to them. Now, in Minamata, he is acting like a father to Akiko.

Daigle: This is such a simple question, but what part of the film stayed with you the longest? For me, films linger, and there are some parts that become fuzzy and others that become sharper. What remained sharpest in your memory?

George: You’re right; this is a powerful and emotionally moving film. Viewers may simply have to sit still for a few moments to recover after seeing it. I had talked to Andrew Levitas when he was planning the film, but I had never seen the script, so I did not know what to expect of Minamata. That scene of Gene holding Akiko while he was taking care of her was the most memorable scene for me. I had mentioned to Levitas that what brought the meaning of Minamata disease home to me most viscerally was when I carried a partially paralyzed congenital victim on my back from a car into a building, and I had suggested to him that Gene Smith must have had a moment like that too. I never imagined, though, that he would come up with something as brilliant as this. It made me cry the first time I saw the movie. What about the film had the most impact on you?

Daigle: It was the scene when Eugene was developing the photograph he took of Akiko with her mother—the recreation of “Tomoko in Her Bath.” I was surprised and a little shocked to see the photograph of Akiko and her mother transform into the original photograph by the Smiths as Eugene is agitating the tray. The poignancy and power of that scene is twofold for me. First, the transition from the mock photo to the actual “Tomoko in Her Bath” was just a beautiful transition. Second, this photograph has had tremendous meaning to the people in Minamata, particularly patients and activists involved in the lawsuits and environmental citizens movement since the time Tomoko herself went to court with her parents. Because this photograph is staged, it has been the focus of intense controversy among patients. So, one of the most important things that I learned is to acknowledge that some of the most beautiful and impactful photographs are, in fact, staged and come with consequences not known to viewers.

George: Indeed, and it was not staged by Eugene alone. It was a joint creation by him, Aileen, and Tomoko’s mother. It epitomizes the brilliance and humanism of Eugene Smith as a photographer, showing both the atrociousness of this innocent girl having been robbed of so much by Chisso’s poison before she was born, and the best of humanity in the beatific, loving gaze of her mother.

Daigle: Exactly. I was thoroughly entranced by the lead up to the reveal of “Tomoko in Her Bath,” so seeing the actual photograph was a happy surprise.

George: But of course the movie doesn’t actually end there. We see the impact of the photos in LIFE, but then Gene and Aileen are mere observers when the court victory against Chisso is announced. The closing words come from the patient activist powerfully played by Sanada Hiroyuki, who announces that the battle may have been won but “the war persists.” The film seems to be over, but when the credits are running on the right side of the screen there is a list of 22 other industrial pollution incidents running on the left. Levitas wants to tell us about more than Minamata: that Minamata is not alone, that these problems are worldwide, and that they are not solved and continue right up to today.

Daigle: Right. That was just the beginning of Minamata and the victims’ movements.

Michelle Daigle is author of the dissertation “Modern Ambivalences: The Minamata Disease Disaster, Haptics, and the Social Movement in Japan” and a Lecturer in the Department of Anthropology at the University of Hawaiʻi at Mānoa.

Timothy George is the author of Minamata: Pollution and the Struggle for Democracy in Postwar Japan (Harvard University Asia Center, 2002) and a Professor Emeritus of History at the University of Rhode Island, and lives in Kailua on O‘ahu, Hawai‘i.

Attendees at the 2022 AAS Annual Conference in Honolulu are invited to attend a showing of Minamata followed by a discussion with Aileen Smith and the film’s director Andrew Levitas from 1:00 to 4:00pm on March 26 in the Hawai‘i Convention Center’s Lili‘u Theater, room 310. In conjunction with the film there will be a display near the registration area throughout the conference of photographs provided by Aileen Smith from the Smiths’ 1975 book Minamata, on which the film is based. The screening and exhibition are made possible by generous support from the Henry Luce Foundation.