This film was previously reviewed in February 2020 as part of our Berlinale coverage.

With today’s headlines, there could be a strong film made from the historical investigation, aided by an American ex-war journalist, into the widespread mercury poisoning wrought by the Chisso Corporation in 1970s Japan. However, Minamata is not this film. First and foremost, it falls heavily into white saviour tropes which markedly dampen its impact. It cannot decide whether it is a Eugene Smith biopic or an historical crime drama, and a painful script, overwrought music, and cartoon corporate villains further muddle the message.

Johnny Depp is, surprisingly, not the film’s weak link, turning in a sensitive, haunted performance as Smith. Unfortunately, the film does not support his solid character work; clunky dialogue, inconsistent storytelling devices (the war flashbacks inexplicably disappear a third of the way through, contributing nothing meaningful to the tale), and the camera’s general inability to focus distract unignorably and unforgivably. The other actors suffer similarly, most notably in the reduction of Minami’s Aileen from pioneering activist to unconditionally supportive love interest.

Most worryingly, Minamata does not know what it is saying about photography and the inherent consent surrounding it. Watching the white American Smith aggressively seek out photographs of the Minamata residents and environment begins very uncomfortably due to the locals’ clear discomfort with this documentation. A series of contrived plot points and setbacks combine to change Smith’s ethical approach, albeit in an unconvincingly swift fashion, and then to soften the residents’ permissions and privacy. The feelings of exploitation and exoticism are palpable, and worrying.

With environmental disaster and corporate corruption in daily news, Minamata feels like it could be well timed. However, its poor execution on almost every level prevents emotional coherence and involvement, making this noble fight tiresome. This is a story that might need to be told, but not in this way.



CAST: Johnny Depp, Hiroyuki Sanada, Minami, Bill Nighy, Jun Kunimura

DIRECTOR: Andrew Levitas

WRITERS: David K. Kessler, Stephen Deuters, Andrew Levitas, Jason Forman

SYNOPSIS: An ageing war photographer returns to Japan to investigate the poisoning of the inhabitants of a fishing village called Minamata.