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Minamata Mercury Tragedy Gets Hollywood Treatment




TOKYO – Hollywood has a problem with Japan. Even when a movie is nominally “about” Japan, like “The Last Samurai” (2003), the drama is in the character development of the main protagonist – inevitably Western -. Through his Japanese experiences, the drunken American mercenary, played by Tom Cruise, regains self-esteem and gives Emperor Meiji sound advice on how to run the country.

“Minamata,” which hit stores in August, is a much better, more serious movie, and Johnny Depp is a far superior actor to Tom Cruise. Moreover, W. Eugene Smith, the character Depp played with such remarkable skill, was a real person. He lived in the polluted town of Minamata for three years, was severely beaten by corporate toughs and produced one of the most famous images in the history of photojournalism, capturing a severely disabled victim of a mercury poisoning bathed with love by his mother in the family home.

The cinematography is excellent, as are the supporting actors. Minami, who plays Smith’s assistant and later wife, gives the relationship an unusual and touching asexual feel. Yet precisely because the film claims to be “based on actual events,” it must also be judged with a critical eye.

There are two flaws which serve to flatten and simplify the story. The first is the exaggeration of Smith’s role. He is portrayed as a “white savior” who wins the battle for the community, while the role of local Japanese activists is played down. Environmental activism has a long tradition in Japan, dating back to protests against the country’s first major pollution disaster at the Ashio Copper Mine in the late 19th century.

The second is the easy parallel with other corporate disasters listed at the end of the film. These include the appalling thalidomide scandal in the early 1960s and the Bhopal gas leak in India in 1984, in which several thousand people died. Added to these horrors are the oil spills from the Exxon Valdez and Deepwater which devastated the coasts but caused no deaths among the affected communities.

Images of “Minamata”. Because the film claims to be “based on actual events,” it must be judged with a critical eye. (Vertigo Releasing / YouTube screenshots)

More controversial is the mention of “Fukushima”. On that terrible day in March 2011, an earthquake and the resulting tsunami killed some 20,000 people along the northeast coast of Japan, mostly by drowning. The collapse of the Fukushima nuclear power plant caused by the tsunami left one dead and 16 injured. For anti-nuclear activists to make this the main event is to disrespect the memory of the victims of Japan’s worst natural disaster in living memory.

Minamata disease is the best known of the four major illnesses caused by industrial pollution during Japan’s supercharged salvage from the smoldering ruins of WWII. It is named after the small town on the west coast of Kyushu where the outbreak took place.

Chisso, a chemical company that was Minamata’s main employer, had been dumping methylmercury into the sea since the 1930s. The first sign of the poison entering the food chain was the behavior of the cats, who suddenly began to “dance.” spasmodically and then died. Humans have suffered neurological damage and many have also died gruesome deaths. Apparently healthy women have given birth to babies with severe birth defects. Exceptionally, the placenta did not protect the unborn child from toxins, but absorbed mercury.

Scenes from “Minamata”. Despite excellent cinematography and powerful acting, there are flaws in the film that flatten and simplify the story. (Vertigo Releasing / YouTube screenshots)

Shamefully, Chisso stalled for many years and refused to accept responsibility. Things were complicated by different factions among the townspeople, some of whom depended on the business for their livelihoods. There were also unfounded concerns that the disease could be contagious, which has led to the social ostracism of those with the disease.

The company stopped throwing away methylmercury several years before Smith arrived in Japan in 1971. At that point, the fight was over the level of compensation and who was qualified to receive it, with the company attempting to to reduce its liability to the strict minimum.

In the film, Smith decides to take charge of Project Minamata after a young Japanese activist named Aileen shows up at her Manhattan apartment and hands her a stack of documents about the disaster. He’s reluctant to visit Japan at first – flashbacks reveal his traumatic experiences as a war photographer in the Pacific – but he eventually agrees.

Above: Smith surrounded by mannequins during WWII, left, and a photo he took during the fighting between US and Japanese forces on Iwo Jima. (Nikkei Montage / Photos by Getty Images, AP) Bottom: Protesters rally outside the Tokyo Department of Health in May 1970.

In fact, Smith had already spent a year in Japan in 1961-62, working on “Colossus of the Orient,” a photo report on Hitachi Corp., and living in Roppongi with a young American assistant-girlfriend. Upon his return nine years later, it was not to lead a crusade, as the film suggests, but to oversee an exhibition of his work. Aileen, whom he took with him, was a half-Japanese student at Berkley, 30 years his junior. It is a Japanese photographer who drew his attention to the history of Minamata. The topic had generated massive media interest nationally, with some photographers staying in the region for years. Smith followed them.

The film has a fictional scene, in which Chisso’s boss is shown watching Smith’s Minamata photo essay which was just published in Life magazine. “We have to pay,” he mumbles with tears in his eyes. The implication is that Smith’s work was the deciding factor in securing justice for the victims, not the long and ultimately successful legal battle waged by militant groups.

In another scene, Smith and Aileen make their way to Chisso’s hospital and uncover secret files revealing that society has been aware of the connection between the deaths of cats and human Minamata disease for years. This revelation indeed dealt a blow to Chisso’s credibility, but it had nothing to do with Smith. On the contrary, the director of the hospital of Chisso, long retired and suffering from cancer, made the sensational admission to his deathbed.

Top: A woman holds a Minamata disease victim in 1973. (AP) Bottom: A view of the Chisso chemical plant in Minamata in June 1970.

The film ends with a carefully wrapped resolution, when in fact the reality was as messy as Smith’s famously chaotic living conditions. The fact that he and Aileen got married is mentioned, but not that they divorced a few years later. Smith’s death in 1978, it is alleged, was caused indirectly by the injuries he sustained as a result of the beatings of the company’s henchmen. This is not what his biographer thinks. According to Sam Stephenson, he suffered “from diabetes, cirrhosis of the liver, severe hypertension with enlarged heart,” having been an alcoholic and “addicted to amphetamines for most of his adult life. … As has been said of the immortal jazzman. Charlie Parker, Smith died of “everything”.

Smith made a name for himself as a fight photographer on Saipan and Iwo Jima. A gunshot wound in his mouth troubled him for the rest of his life. From there, he became America’s first photo essayist, traveling the world to capture images of Albert Schweitzer in Africa, Welsh coal miners, Spanish peasants, and a black midwife in Mississippi. His work was socially conscious and revealing at a time when the photographic image, published in large format magazines, was all-powerful and photographers were stars in their own right.

Television put an end to that era, and Smith saw it coming. As Stephenson notes, he had always been concerned with the tension between photojournalism and art, and greatly admired musicians and writers. In 1957, he left his wife and four children and moved into a loft in Manhattan which became an open house for New York bohemian society. Jazz greats like Thelonious Monk and Chick Corea have been there. Another visitor was Toshiko Akiyoshi, one of Japan’s most famous jazz artists. She would later record a jazz suite in 1976 called Minamata and win the album of the year award from prestigious American jazz magazine Downbeat.

Smith in Japan in October 1970. The film ends in a carefully packaged resolution, but the reality was much more complicated.

Smith spent most of the 1960s working on projects that never happened. Plugged into amphetamines, he stayed in his dark room for days without sleeping. He also wiretapped the entire building and recorded everything from jazz jams to intimate conversations to TV shows. In total, there are 4,500 hours of tapes in the University of Arizona archives, including several random street noises recorded at Roppongi in 1962.

Smith seems to have spent long years looking for some sort of artistic breakthrough. He did it in Minamata. In particular, his famous photo, “Tomoko Uemura in his bath”, transcends the circumstances of the pollution controversy to create an image for the ages, reminiscent of the greatest works of religious iconography.

Smith was a much stranger and more complex character than the film’s Hemingwayesque boozer, but he was no savior. He turned his experience of Minamata into superlative art, and that’s surely more than enough. Despite such reservations, it would be a shame if the film was “buried” because of Johnny Depp’s current legal issues as feared by director Andrew Levitas. It deserves to be seen widely, as a warning of what can happen when technological advancements are not properly monitored.




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