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Minamata mercury tragedy gets Hollywood treatment

New film gives flawed view of the American photojournalist who exposed poisoning scandal

In "Minamata," Johnny Depp, right, stars as American photojournalist W. Eugene Smith, who documented the deadly effects of industrial mercury pollution in Minamata, Japan. (Vertigo Releasing/screen grab from YouTube) 

TOKYO -- Hollywood has a Japan problem. Even when a film is nominally "about" Japan, such as "The Last Samurai" (2003), the drama is in the character development of the main -- inevitably Western -- protagonist. Thanks to his Japan experiences, the drunken American mercenary, played by Tom Cruise, recovers his self-respect -- and gives Emperor Meiji some sound advice on how he should rule the country.

"Minamata," which was commercially released in August, is a much better and more serious film, and Johnny Depp is a far superior actor to Tom Cruise. Furthermore, W. Eugene Smith, the character that Depp plays with such remarkable skill, was a real person. He lived in the pollution-stricken town of Minamata for three years, got badly beaten by company toughs and produced one of the most famous images in the history of photojournalism, capturing a severely disabled victim of mercury poisoning being lovingly bathed by her mother in the family home.

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