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Minamata: Johnny Depp Shines In Sombre Look At Japanese Mercury Poisoning Issue


Words By Arnel Duracak

“…Minamata gets the best out of Depp, but doesn’t add much to the findings on the issue at hand”

Minamata isn’t a perfect film by any means and the fact that it leans into a white-saviour telling doesn’t do the issue it addresses justice in the way that an oriental telling might. But Minamata ultimately does shed light on an issue that has somewhat escaped the public eye, and it does so through the help of a dedicated cast that is helmed by a more reserved Johnny Depp compared to the odd and exuberant characters he has come to be known by.

Depp plays esteemed photojournalist W. Eugene Smith who is consumed by booze and depression in his latter years as he struggles to find meaning in his life; he is essentially a relic at a time where photo journalism lacks the same verisimilitude it once had, and he is estranged from his children. It isn’t until the issue of Minamata disease is brought to Smith by a Japanese-American, Aileen (Minami Hinase), that he finds purpose and a way to convince Life Magazine’s editor Robert Hayes (Bill Nighy) to send him to a small town in Minamata, Japan to help pull the struggling magazine out of its decline.

What follows is a somewhat cliched, white saviour rendition of the events of the Minamata disease and the corporation behind its spread, the Chisso chemical factory. There seems to be a tendency for western directors like Andrew Levitas to handle serious issues rather than offer anything new on the subject or its significance. Sure the underlying significance is to shed light on the people who struggle against corporations like Chisso (which is more prevalent than ever), but it comes at the expense of an overzealous re-telling that bounces from one harrowing image to another. At times, this approach feels gimmicky in that it is effectively fishing for a reaction and understating the impact of the issue.

Minamata (2020) - Photo Gallery - IMDb

Johnny Depp as W. Eugene Smith in Minamata

Unsurprisingly, it is Depp who is the most compelling part of the film as he knuckles down on Smith’s persona in a way that echoes his portrayal of Hunter S. Thompson in Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas (1998). Depp captures the idiosyncrasies of Smith in a similar fashion to his portrayal of Thompson and at times this makes me wonder how Minamata would have fared had it focused more on Smith in those years. He is almost unrecognisable under the scraggly beard and hair, the rugged clothes, and facial blemishes, and he brings a certain sincerity to the role that other actors would not. Seeing the actor outside of the likes of the Pirates franchise and other A list blockbusters is a welcomed change in that regard.

The two points in the film that are most effective at asking questions about the issue beyond what is already known are a sequence involving the traversing of a hospital as Smith and Aileen discover a hidden lab, and a rooftop sequence where Chisso CEO (Jun Kunimara) tries to bribe Smith into dropping the story. Beyond those two sequences, however, Levitas is almost bordering an ‘Oscar bait’ approach to his direction by giving Depp’s character isolated moments with victims that detract from the corporate criticism approach he is also taking. In other words, we have that part of the story already documented by Smith himself, so taking a greater interest in the nitty gritty aspects that are less known would have elevated the issues the film tries to address.

Ultimately, Minamata gets the best out of Depp, but doesn’t add much to the findings on the issue at hand. A documentary type approach would have certainly extrapolated greater elusive details about this moment in history, but there is enough base information here for people to get a sense of what was happening in Minamata at the time.

Minamata opens nationally from the 3rd of June 2021


Arnel Duracak


May 26th 2021
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