“Minamata” – Fabulous Photography and Telling of a Story that Shouldn’t Need Telling

This week I am leading some seminars at university to do with protest in Japan in the 1960s. It’s not possible to discuss this theme without Minamata and Minamata-byo (usually referred to as “Minamata Disease” although, technically, it is an illness rather than a disease) coming up. It seemed appropriate, therefore, to watch the movie Minamata (dir. Andrew Levitas 2020).

In case you are not familiar with the movie, here is a summary on IMDb.

New York, 1971. Following his celebrated days as one of the most revered photojournalists of World War II, W. Eugene Smith (Johnny Depp) has become a recluse, disconnected from society and his career. But a secret commission from Life magazine editor Robert Hayes (Bill Nighy) sends him to the Japanese coastal city of Minamata, which has been ravaged by mercury poisoning; the result of decades of gross industrial negligence by the country’s Chisso Corporation. There, Smith immerses himself in the community, documenting their efforts to live with Minamata Disease and their passionate campaign to achieve recognition from Chisso and the Japanese government. Armed with only his trusted camera, Smith’s images from the toxic village give the disaster a heartbreaking human dimension, and his initial assignment turns into a life-changing experience.


Due to the seminars that I am holding this week and my discussions of Minamata in Japan: The Basics and Shinkansen, I didn’t actually think about the movie in relation to my study on disaster movies (see, for example, “Disaster Narratives by Design: Is Japan Different?“) and consider whether the movie should be considered a disaster movie or not and if it were, what conventions were included). Unlike when I watched Fukushima 50, I just watched it for what it is.

Compared to another foreign-made movie related to environmental issues in Japan, The Cove (dir. Louie Psihoyos 2009), Minamata is much more watchable and much better made (I know that The Cove has a very high rating on IMDb, but I didn’t think it was very good at all). Minamata is not perfect and I’m sure that there are some historical errors in it – it is, after all, “Based on True Events” and is not a documentary. This is a theme that has come up in my work on disaster films.

As well as being interested in the telling of the story of Minamata, I really enjoyed the focus on Smith. There are a few reasons for this. First, due to the way in which his pictures and gaiatsu (foreign pressure) helped make a difference. I still hope to achieve something in getting to the bottom of what really happened to the flight JL123 using such gaiatsu. Second, and still connected to JL123, one of my friends, Naonori Kohira, is a photographer. He was one of the first to find the JL123 crash site and he has a book, 4/524, covering some of his photographs and memories (which I provided the English translation for) and some of his experiences helped influence elements of the 2008 movie version of Climber’s High. Third, the main character, Iwakura, in one of my series of novels is a photographer/journalist so I am interested in seeing more about how such photographers work.

One line that stuck out for me in the film is when Smith points out that there are those that some believe that when you take a photograph you take a bit of the subject’s soul and he comments that the same may also be true for the photographer themselves. I think there are times when the same could be said about academics covering certain people and subjects.

Much like Fukushima 50 and Borgen, the first three seasons of which I have just finished watching, I really like the way it was put together, but I’m not sure there would be a need or desire to watch it again. I was glad though that movie did bring us up to date with what has happened since Smith took his pictures and was interested to see that his (ex)wife Aileen continues to work on raising awareness about Minamata and environmental issues. However, the film could have done more to point out just how pitiful the compensation and response from Chisso and Japanese government has been in relation to everything that happened.

At the moment Minamata has an average of 7.6 on IMDb. Personally, in case you’re interested, I gave it an 8. Please do watch it.

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