Johnny Depp’s film takes Minamata’s pollution problem as a warning


For Hollywood star Johnny Depp, the story of an act of industrial pollution that devastated Japan’s southwestern coastal community of Minamata over half a century ago is a story that had to be told, no. only for its victims but for present and future generations.

The film “Minamata”, which he both produced and starred in, arrives this month to do just that in Japan, where despite the perception that the incident is history, litigation is still ongoing. course by those who feel they have been overlooked for support.

Depp plays Eugene Smith, a renowned American photojournalist whose 1971 photo of a teenage girl sickened by the mercury poisoning that plagued the city in the 1950s and 1960s woke the world to tragedy and became an icon of dangers of industry insanity when economic growth is prized above all else.

The photo provided shows a scene from the movie “Minamata”. (Copyright Larry Horricks) (Kyodo)

The disease was officially recognized by local health authorities in 1956, although initially unaware that it was caused by the dumping of mercury-contaminated wastewater into the sea from a Chisso Corp. chemical plant. in the city, which lasted over a decade.

People who ate contaminated seafood suffered from paralysis of the hands and feet and visual field defects. The disease, which was named after the city, also triggered congenital disabilities.

Directed by Andrew Levitas, the film is a fictional representation based on actual events described in a 1975 photographic essay book by Smith. It covers the three years from 1971 in which Smith and his Tokyo-born wife, Aileen Mioko Smith, documented the accounts of local patients living with the disease and their campaign to gain recognition from Chisso and the Japanese government.

According to its creators, the film is intended as an uplifting narrative.

Johnny Depp speaks from France during a videoconference with Japanese media on September 2, 2021. (Kyodo)

“It’s such an important story, first because it happened, a lot of people suffered, and secondly because it’s still happening everywhere else,” Depp said during a video conference from France with the Japanese media ahead of the film’s September 23 release in Japan.

It also shows how people need to stand up to help each other, Depp said, especially amid the COVID-19 pandemic, which he sees as “dividing and isolating people from others.”

“What happened in Minamata all those years ago is kind of a pathetic and shocking tale of what would later happen in various parts of the world in various ways,” said the 58-year-old Pirates Caribbean.

Before its launch in Japanese theaters, the film, which premiered at the Berlin International Film Festival in February 2020, was screened at two schools in Tokyo. Some students later admitted that they had limited awareness of the severity of Minamata disease, although they had studied the issue at school.

“I studied Minamata disease last year in history class, but the movie was so real. The problem is much bigger than I thought,” said Mami Matsukawa, 15, who was part of the film. of the 180 or so students who watched the film to the Kojimachi audience. High school.

At Den-en Chofu Gakuen Junior & Senior High School, a private girls’ school where about 400 students watched the film, Yuna Yokoo, senior, said she felt the Japanese government told schoolchildren that the Minamata disease “is over”.

Students at Den-en Chofu Gakuen Junior & Senior High School in Tokyo react after watching the movie “Minamata” on September 1, 2021. (Kyodo)

“I was myself, when I saw it in our manual, passing it off as a thing of the past,” she said, but now she sees it as an example of injustice. She, like other students who watched the film, said they wanted to think about how they could let more people know that Minamata disease is an ongoing problem.

It was not until 1968 that the Japanese government recognized that Minamata disease was caused by industrial pollution and stopped the water spill. It is considered one of the top four pollution diseases in the country and taught in schools as an example of the negative impact of the rapid economic growth in post-war Japan.

At Kojimachi Junior High, students also had the chance to meet online and hear stories from three patients born with the disease because their mothers had eaten toxic seafood.

One of them, Koichiro Matsunaga, 58, said: “I am bitter to think that I might not have suffered if the government had valued people’s lives and stopped the landfill.” just after official recognition of the disease in 1956. He was born four years later.

Koichiro Matsunaga (center) and two other patients born with Minamata disease meet with students from Kojimachi High School in Tokyo on September 9, 2021. (Kyodo)

By the end of March this year, 2,283 people in and around Minamata had been recognized as suffering from Minamata disease, of which 1,988 had died. 1,426 others were still asking for recognition.

In addition, around 38,000 unrecognized people received financial assistance on the basis of a special disease law of 2009, while nearly 10,000 others were rejected. Many of those excluded are involved in legal proceedings in various parts of Japan.

Depp said that as soon as he came up with the idea of ​​producing the film, he “very simply thought it had to be done (and) see the light of day.” But he was also determined that he “really tells this story right,” according to the film’s production notes.

In an effort to accurately describe the events and people involved, Levitas and the production team traveled to Minamata in September 2018 and met with some of the surviving victims and their families.

They even tracked down Smith’s customs forms to find the exact cameras and lenses he brought to Minamata, but shot most of the scenes in the Serbian capital Belgrade and the coastal town of Tivat in Montenegro as Minamata s ‘has been considerably modernized since the 1970s.

Andrew Levitas speaks from New York City during a videoconference with Japanese media on September 2, 2021. (Kyodo)

“What was most important to us was to express the essential truth under everything,” said Levitas, 44, who joined Depp at the press conference on a video call from New York.

Seeing the film through “Eugene Smith’s lens” as an outsider entering the community, “viewers around the world could digest and understand it,” he said.

Tokyo-born actress Minami, who bears her first name, played Aileen Smith. In a separate interview with Kyodo News, she said that overall, Japan can be proud of the history of Minamata disease victims struggling for recognition.

“The point is, the people of Minamata in Japan fought the country, and of course the problems persist, but they won,” Minami said. “I would like to convey such energy and power as a positive message.”

Levitas said he hopes to inspire and uplift people to try to stand up for each other, recognize that their voices can be heard and take a stand when governments and businesses act against their best interests.

“All the pollution problems in the world are linked because they essentially deprive each of us of the first right, which is to live a healthy and unpolluted life,” he said.

Depp said the time since the production of the film had “only made my passion” for fighting “the un-countable cases of injustice that exist in the world in so many different forms”, calling the incident. pollution of Minamata of “type of corruption.”

“This film must be seen, I believe, to understand the plight of the people of Minamata and what they went through and also to highlight how corruption can exist very easily and get rid of people all at once if no one don’t see it, “he said.

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