'Minamata' brings the horror of industrial pollution to life

The hand of Tomoko Uemura, Minimata disease victim. Image: Wikimedia Commons

Minamata
Directed by Andrew Levitas
Starring Johnny Depp, Hiroyuki Sanada, Minami Hinase
In cinemas

The name of the Japanese coastal village, Minamata, became synonymous with industrial pollution in 1971, when United States photographer Eugene Smith published a photographic essay in Life magazine, exposing the horrific effects of four decades of mercury poisoning on the villagers.

This biopic, produced by and starring Johnny Depp, opens with possibly the best known of those photos, Tomoko Uemura in Her Bath, showing a mother bathing the shockingly distorted body of her child. The narrative takes us on the long, tortuous path of how that image was composed and shot.

Smith originally made his name as a war photographer. Early in the film, an almost clichéd sequence shows Smith, played to perfection by Depp, washed up and alcoholic in New York, haunted by post-traumatic stress flashbacks.

He is dragged out of his reclusiveness by a chance encounter with Japanese translator, Aileen (who, in real life came to marry Smith). She convinces him to travel to Japan to investigate a mystery illness, known as Minamata disease.

In Japan, the authorities oppose and threaten the investigation. They serve the interests of the corrupt Chisso Corporation, which began the mercury poisoning of Minamata Bay in 1932. The corporation’s looming office building assumes an ominous presence in the film.

The storyline is essentially that of an emotionally-wounded, American "rugged individualist", coming to the aid of hapless people in need of some Yankee brashness. However, that pretty much sums up what Smith did, and Depp does the story justice.

The Minamata story was Smith's final assignment, and he really did confront and destroy the power of one of the most evil companies in the world. Today, there are even bigger corporations committing evil on a more enormous scale.

This is a timely and inspiring film — a lot more confrontation and destruction of corporate power needs to be done.

The trailer for Minamata can be seen here.