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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.

The cinematography is excellent, as is the supporting cast. Minami, who plays Smith's assistant and later wife, gives the relationship an asexual aspect that is unusual and touching. Yet precisely because the film claims to be "based on real events," it also needs to be judged with a critical eye.

There are two flaws that 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 downplayed. Environmental activism has had a long tradition in Japan, stretching back to protests over the country's first major pollution disaster at the Ashio copper mine in the late 19th century.

The second is the facile parallel with other corporate disasters listed at the film's close. These include the appalling thalidomide scandal of the early 1960s and India's Bhopal gas leak of 1984 in which many thousands died. Conflated with these horrors are the Exxon Valdez and Deepwater oil spills which devastated coastlines but caused no deaths among the affected communities.

Images from "Minamata." Because the film claims to be "based on real events," it must be judged with a critical eye. (Vertigo Releasing/screen grabs from YouTube) 

More controversial is the mention of "Fukushima." On that terrible day in March 2011, an earthquake and resulting tsunami killed some 20,000 people along Japan's northeastern coast, mainly by drowning. The related meltdown at the Fukushima nuclear power station caused by the tsunami led to one death and 16 injuries. For anti-nuclear activists to make that 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 turbocharged recovery from the smoking ruins of World War II. 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 major employer, had been discharging methylmercury into the sea since the 1930s.The first sign of the poison seeping through the food chain was the behavior of cats, which suddenly began "dancing" spasmodically and then died. Humans suffered neurological damage and many died horrible deaths too. Apparently healthy women bore babies with severe birth defects. Unusually, the placenta did not protect the unborn child from toxins, but absorbed the mercury.

Scenes from "Minamata." Despite excellent cinematography and strong acting, the film contains flaws that flatten and simplify the story. (Vertigo Releasing/screen grabs from YouTube) 

Shamefully, Chisso stalled for many years and refused to accept liability. Matters were complicated by different factions among the townspeople, some of whom depended on the company for their livelihoods. There were also unfounded concerns that the disease could be contagious, which led to the social ostracization of sufferers.

The company stopped dumping the methylmercury several years before Smith arrived in Japan in 1971. By then, the struggle was about the level of compensation and who was qualified to receive it, with the company attempting to reduce its liability to the bare minimum.

In the film, Smith decides to take on the Minamata project after a young Japanese activist called Aileen shows up at his Manhattan apartment and hands over a stack of documents about the disaster. He is initially reluctant to visit Japan -- flashbacks reveal his traumatic experiences as a war photographer in the Pacific -- but he finally agrees.

Top: Smith surrounded by fashion models during WWII, left, and a photo he took during fighting between U.S. and Japanese forces on Iwo Jima. (Nikkei montage/Photos by Getty Images, AP) Bottom: Protesters gather outside the Ministry of Health in Tokyo in May 1970.

In reality, Smith had already spent a year in Japan in 1961-62, working on "Colossus of the Orient," a photo essay about Hitachi Corp., and living in Roppongi with a young American assistant-cum-girlfriend. When he returned nine years later, it was not to lead a crusade, as the film suggests, but to oversee an exhibition of his work. Aileen, who he brought along with him, was a half-Japanese student at Berkley who was 30 years his junior. It was a Japanese photographer who brought the Minamata story to his attention. The subject had attracted massive media interest domestically, with some photographers staying in the area for years. Smith followed in their trail.

The film has a fictional scene, in which the boss of Chisso is shown gazing at Smith's just-published Minamata photo essay in Life magazine. "We have to pay," he mutters with tears in his eyes. The implication is that Smith's work was the decisive factor in obtaining justice for the sufferers, not the long and ultimately successful legal battle waged by the activist groups.

In another scene Smith and Aileen bluff their way into the Chisso Hospital and find secret files revealing that the company had known about the link between the cat deaths and human Minamata disease for years. That revelation did indeed deliver a crushing blow to Chisso's credibility, but it had nothing to do with Smith. Rather, the director of the Chisso Hospital, long retired and suffering from cancer, made the sensational admission on his deathbed.

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

The film ends with a neatly packaged resolution, when in fact the reality was as messy as Smith's famously chaotic living conditions. The fact that he and Aileen married is mentioned, but not that they divorced a few years afterwards. Smith's death in 1978, it is claimed, was caused indirectly by the injuries that he suffered from the beatings by company goons. That is not what his biographer thinks. According to Sam Stephenson, he was suffering "from diabetes, cirrhosis of the liver, severe hypertension with an enlarged heart," having been an alcoholic and "amphetamine addict for most of his adult life. ... As was said of the immortal jazzman Charlie Parker, Smith died of 'everything.'"

Smith made his name as a combat photographer on Saipan and Iwo Jima. A bullet wound in his mouth troubled him for the rest of his life. From there he went on to become America's premier 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 eye-opening at a time when the photographic image, published in large format magazines, was almighty 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 about the tension between photojournalism and art, and greatly admired musicians and writers. In 1957, he left his wife and four children and moved to a loft in Manhattan which became an open house for New York bohemian society. Jazz greats such as Thelonious Monk and Chick Corea passed through. Another visitor was Toshiko Akiyoshi, one of Japan's most celebrated jazz artists. She would later record a jazz suite in 1976 called Minamata and win the album of the year award from America's prestigious Downbeat jazz magazine.

Smith in Japan in October 1970. The film ends with a neatly packaged resolution, but the reality was far messier.

Smith spent most of the 1960s working on projects that never happened. Wired on amphetamines, he stayed in his darkroom for days on end without sleep. He also electronically bugged the entire building and recorded everything that went on, from jazz jams to intimate conversations to TV shows. Altogether, there are 4,500 hours of tapes in the archive at the University of Arizona, including several of random street noise recorded in Roppongi in 1962.

Smith appears to have spent long years searching for some sort of artistic breakthrough. He achieved it at Minamata. In particular, his celebrated photo, "Tomoko Uemura in Her Bath," transcends the circumstances of the pollution controversy to create an image for the ages, one that recalls the greatest works of religious iconography.

Smith was a much stranger and more complex character than the Hemingwayesque boozer of the film, but he was no savior. He transformed his Minamata experience into superlative art, and surely that is more than enough. Despite such reservations, it would be a shame if the film were to be "buried" because of Johnny Depp's current legal troubles as the director Andrew Levitas fears. It deserves to be seen widely, as a warning of what can happen when technological advance is not properly monitored.

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