Andrew Levitas’s “Minamata” is an important film about a serious subject and stands as another shining example that Johnny Depp is one of cinema’s finest character actors. Inventive and unique, his versatility and ability to disappear into a character is undeniable.
In 1971, photojournalist W. Eugene Smith published a harrowing and tragic photo entitled, “Tomoko Uemura in Her Bath”. Shot in stark and heartbreaking Black & White, the photo shows a Japanese mother cradling her severely deformed daughter.
Regarded as Smith’s greatest work, the picture put a human face to the atrocities of Minamata disease, a type of Mercury poisoning that attacks the mind and body, named after the region in which the outbreak occurred. The origins of the disease were found to be caused from toxic chemicals released into the water from a factory owned by the Chisso Corporation. This continued from 1932 to 1968 and affected thousands.
This is the type of film cinema used to embrace, the exposing of scandals by journalists who bring them into the light of the world stage; important subjects that affect our human rights.
Films such as James Bridges’ “The China Syndrome”, Roland Joffe’s “The Killing Fields”, and Oliver Stone’s “Salvador” are great examples of this type of picture, as each found respect from audiences and critics alike.
Levitas’s film is a return to important subjects after decades of films playing it safe and kowtowing to modern audiences’ need to be spoon fed mindless entertainment. The director understands (as the real-life Smith understood), this is a story that needs to be told.
After taking the story to his editor at Life magazine (the great Bill Nighy), Smith sets off to Japan with Aileen Mioko (Minami Bages), who convinced him to help “bring global attention.” to the atrocities in Minamata.
The film desires to open the audience’s eyes and hearts (much as Smith’s were opened) into the plight of the victims.
Tenderness and humanity exist throughout, as Smith moves his camera through the families’ lives, bringing his true focus on the hearts that still beat inside the afflicted. He doesn’t wish to become part of the story, but Smith lets the story become a part of him.
Once such scene could hold the most profound moment of Johnny Depp’s career. Smith sits on a porch overlooking the water. In his arms is the broken body of one of his subjects, her muscles ravaged by the disease. She cannot speak nor move. Depp softly sings Dylan’s “Forever Young”, as the girl makes noises to let him know he brings her peace. The moment lingers but not too long, just enough to move us, and truly, I was moved to tears.
The film is smart to give us just enough of Smith’s life to understand him and what drives his passion for the work.
The intelligent script from David K. Kessler, Jason Forman, Stephen Deuters, and director Levitas finds Smith haunted by past experiences with death and war; post-traumatic stress from World War II.
As he laments getting older and the breaking down of his own body, W. Eugene Smith is still a determined man driven by duty and compassion to bring truth through his camera lens.
Depp plays Smith with a world-weariness colored with wisdom and kindness. The performance is far from the mannered wildness that has colored many of his films over the past few decades. The actor is quiet and powerful, fully inhabiting Smith with supreme skill.
The great Japanese actor Hiroyuki Sanada is wonderful in an important supporting role as one of the men who takes up the cause and fights back against the corporation. Where Smith is the eyes that the world will see through, Sanada’s character is the voice of the people who have been affected by this tragedy.
Cinematographer Benoît Delhomme’s camerawork is fluid, giving the film a naturalistic beauty. The cameraman knows when to be still and when to move. Levitas’s and Delhomme’s great work go hand in hand.
A major part of the film’s successful emotional pull is Ryuichi Sakamoto, who crafts another beautiful score. Long one of cinema’s finest film composers, Sakamoto’s signature piano stylings blend with strings and harps to echo the tragedy and humanity of the characters depicted within the story. It would be easy to over-score a film such as this. Sakamoto doesn’t tug at our heartstrings. His score becomes a part of the characters, helping to sing their sad song.
Levitas’s film had its premiere at the 2020 Berlin Film Festival. Tragically, MGM all but buried it, denying a proper release in North America. Whatever the actual reason, U.S. filmgoers were robbed of a powerful cinematic experience.
As the end credit montage of corporate evils plays out, we are reminded that the money men will continue to get away with their atrocities until someone takes a stand.
“Minamata” is a great film. More than a mere biopic, this is a work of social importance and a call for justice around the world.
Directed by Andrew Levitas
Written by David K. Kessler, Jason Forman, Stephen Deuters, & Andrew Levitas
Starring Johnny Depp, Minami, Hiroyuki Sanada, Tadanobu Asano, Jun Kunimura, Bill Nighy
R, 115 Minutes, MGM/Metalwork Pictures/ Han Way Films