Remembering the Power of an Image: ‘Minamata’ ⭐︎⭐︎⭐︎

The film begins with the sound of water. The first person we see is a Japanese woman and she’s singing softly (in Japanese) to a person who we barely get a glimpse of. From there, the film jumps to water in trays under red light. We’re in an old-style photo darkroom where a man uses an enlarger to print by burning and dodging before watching the image develop in chemicals. The images are not all pretty. He’s a photo journalist and even if you don’t remember his name, you should know his most famous image because he was a man who proved that a single image could change world opinion. Or at least, that is the story presented here in the fictionalized account of W. Eugene Smith and his soon-to-be wife’s time in “Minamata.” 

All journalists and all photographers should remember the single image that the beginning sequence references. The image is stark, black and white. It is sad. The image is about a microcosm–one small village in Japan. And the image expands to a macrocosm, our world and the problem of pollution. 

At the center of the film is not the two subjects of that image, but the photographer who is the kind of irascible artist Hollywood loves: W. Eugene “Gene” Smith (Johnny Depp). He drinks. His work space is cluttered. His editor at Life Magazine, Robert Hayes (Bill Nighy),  finds him impossible to work with. His unseen kids don’t talk to him and he’s sold all of his photography equipment.

Yet fate comes knocking at his door. Gene had agreed to be part of a Japanese commercial for Fujifilm and the photographer and an interpreter are here. He’s being paid to endorse the vibrancy of Fuji color film even though he shoots exclusively in black and white. 

Background

Life magazine was published weekly from 1883 to 1972. There were special issues until 1978 and then later as a monthly between 1978 to 2000. My favorite photojournalists were contributors, people like Margaret Bourke-White, Robert Capa, Henri Cartier-Bresson and Philippe Halsman. Some famous and infamous photos were published in this general interest magazine. The Life magazine Pearl Harbor edition advised readers on how to tell the difference between the Chinese (Allies) and the Japanese (Axis). On 22 May 1944, the photo of the week was “Arizona war worker writes her Navy boyfriend a thank-you note for the Japanese skull he sent her.” 


On 2 June 1972, the Japanese were given a sympathetic eye in the magazine. The photo essay by Smith was a warning to the world about the problems of pollution, coming from Minamata, Japan.

Minamata (水俣) is a city on the Southern most of the four main islands, Kyūshū. Located on the southwest coast of Kyūshū, it was established as a village in 1889. In 1972 (2 March), Kyūshū became easier to reach with the opening of the Shinkansen service between Osaka (Honshū) and Hakata ( Kyūshū). Currently travel by train from Tokyo takes about 7 hours with the Shinkansen (Nozomi) connecting to the Hakata to Shin-Minamata (Shinkansen Tsubame or Shinkansen Sakura). From Shin-Minamata to Minamata is a 2.1 taxi drive. 

The neurological disorder caused by mercury poisoning from wastewater emptying into Minamata Bay, Minamata disease, was first discovered in 1956. The mercury was a byproduct of acetaldehyde production at the Chisso chemical company and although the discharge ceased in 1968, the mercury was already in the sea sediment and the fish. 

When the film begins, William Eugene “Gene”  Smith (30 Dec. 1918-15 October 1978) had already made photo essays of World War II in the Pacific and was wounded in Okinawa. His photo essays included miners in South Wales Valleys (1949), the rural poverty of a Spanish Village, a profile of Black nurse midwife Maude E. Callen in rural South Carolina (1951) and a photo essays of Albert Schweitzer at his Gabon, West Africa clinic (1954).  

Smith had left his wife and their four children in 1957 to move into a loft in midtown Manhattan. He is living in this loft when fate comes knocking at his door.

The Film Minamata

While the film begins in Japan, it quickly jumps back a few years to 1970. Gene is 51. Aileen Sprague is the interpreter for a Fujifilm commercial. Aileen was born and raised in Japan to a Japanese mother and an American father. Her parents moved to the US when she was 11. When Aileen met Gene, she was 20–a junior at Stanford working a summer job with the Japanese advertising agency Dentsu.

Gene (Johnny Depp) had agreed to be part of a Japanese commercial for Fujifilm and the photographer is a fan of Gene’s while the  interpreter, Aileen (Minami) has her own reasons for taking the assignment. Gene’s being paid to endorse the vibrancy of Fuji color film even though he shoots exclusively in black and white. In the film, Aileen took the job because she wants Gene to come to Japan to look at Minamata disease. That contradicts the account Aileen gives, that two months after they met a Japanese man, Motomura Kazuhiko, brought Minamata to Gene’s attention. And this makes Aileen seem somewhat manipulative instead of a kindred spirit. 

In the film, Gene convinces his editor at Life magazine to go with this story. Another Life staff member notes that small articles have popped up on the New York Times pages, but nothing with photos and nothing extensive. Gene and Aileen travel to Japan, but none of the actual journey and its hardships are shown. They get straight to Minamata and begin their photography with Aileen often frustrated by Gene’s actions. Gene is often drunk and finds drinking pals in the village. 

The Japanese aren’t helplessly waiting for a savior. The parents of children severely affected have formed a vocal group led by Mitsuo Yamazaki (Hiroyuki Sanada) Gene and Aileen get to know the Matsumura family, mother Mask (Akiko Iwase) and father Tatsuo (Tadanobu Asano). The fight against the Chisso company isn’t easily won and the company isn’t above dirty tactics.  

Smith did suffer greatly for the image we finally see recreated here. He was beaten so badly that he had to use a shutter release. The photo has, at the request of the family, been withdrawn from circulation. 

The film isn’t perfect. The film doesn’t aptly explain why Aileen was drawn and then repelled from Smith. There was a 31-year gap between them. They did marry, but they also were not together at the time of Smith’s death. There is no pirate-rock star swagger in Depp’s portrayal. His hard-living lifestyle is etched into his face and gives us a ravaged beauty that apparently also plagued Smith.  Smith was one of the pioneers of the photo essay and thus, in some ways, the video essay. For Life magazine, it was like a last hurrah. Life magazine was on the decline. Depp’s Smith is an already fragile man, haunted by memories of war and possibly suffering from PTSD. His walk is barely above a shuffle. He feels fragile, but in a way that’s almost before his time. 

The film brings up some questionable practices in photojournalism, but doesn’t clearly delineate them. Gene staged photographs. Smith has commented on this. In 1948 he noted: 

The majority of photographic stories require a certain amount of setting up, rearranging and stage direction, to bring pictorial and editorial coherency to the pictures. Here, the photojournalist can be his most completely creative self. Whenever this is done for the purpose of a better translation of the spirit of the actuality, then it is completely ethical. If the changes become a perversion of the actuality for the sole purpose of making a “more dramatic” or “saleable” picture, the photographer has indulged in “artistic license” that should not be. This is a very common type of distortion. If the photographer has distorted for some unethical reasons, it obviously becomes a matter of the utmost gravity.

In a discussion with Philippe Halsmann, the two photographers had this exchange: 

Smith: “I would not have hesitated to ask her to throw the water. (I don’t object to staging if and only if I feel that it is an intensification of something that is absolutely authentic to the place.)”

Halsmann: “Cartier-Bresson never asks for this…. Why do you break this basic rule of candid photography?”

Smith: “I didn’t write the rules — why should I follow them? Since I put a great deal of time and research to know what I am about? I ask and arrange if I feel it is legitimate. The honesty lies in my — the photographer’s — ability to understand.”

Halsmann refers to Henri Cartier-Bresson who thought it was unethical to stage photographs, but that doesn’t mean Cartier-Bresson didn’t do stage some of his most famous shots. In general, staging  is contrary to the ethical practices of the time and even today would be considered questionable. It might even rise to the level of dismissal. Halsmann was a portrait photographer where setting up the shot was the norm and he  famously collaborated with Salvador Dali

As the film ends, the titles tell us that Gene and Aileen were married on 28 August 1971 in Japan. Gene died 15 October 1978 “indirectly as a result of the injuries he received at the factory.” The Minamata essays were the last photos he took. 

You might ask, as I did, if this film isn’t a variation of the White savior. In the case of “The Rescue,” it is true that the international team efforts were guided by White men, but in Japan, in the hard-to-reach town of Minamata, we must wonder just where the New York Times minor news stories mentioned at the beginning of the Johnny Depp film were coming from. The film makes it seem as if Gene and Aileen were the only journalists willing to plunge into the Minata struggles.

That was not the case. Gene and Aileen would journey to Minamata, arriving in September of 1971 according to this article in Nippon.com,  Smith continued to work in Minamata until 1974. In Japan, a filmmaker, Noriaki Tsuchimoto (1928-2008), did make a documentary “Minamata: The Victims and their World” (水俣 患者さんとその世界, Minamata: Kanja-san to sono sekai) which premiered in March 1971 according to IMDb. That means it was likely that Tsuchimoto was filming in 1970. The documentary was screened in Italy in 1972, aired on Swedish television in 1973 and opened in the US in 1974. 

Tsuchimoto’s documentary does focus on a severely handicapped young girl, Takako Isayama. The full documentary is currently available on YouTube. 

Tsuchimoto’s images, however, was much grainier in 1971 than the best still photographs. As some other reviewers have suggested that this tale of the Smiths in Minamata would be better told in a documentary, it should be a documentary that included men like Tsuchimoto and showed how the Life magazine spread worked within this greater effort by the Japanese documentarian. Tsuchimoto made several films on the topic. 

The film “Minamata” reminds us that the fight for drinkable water isn’t over, even in the US. Think of Flint. The film is “dedicated to the people of Minamata and countless victims of industrial pollution and those who stand with them,” but remember, Tsuchimoto was one of those people who stood by the people of Minamata. The Japanese weren’t saved by a White man, but a White man did make the disaster in Minamata his last comprehensive photo essay. 

  • Mercury in Indonesia
  • Chernobyl in Ukraine
  • Thalidomide Worldwide
  • Alumina Plant Toxic Spill in Hungary
  • Exxon Valdez Oil Spill in USA
  • Fukushima Daiichi Nuclear waste
  • Brumadinho Dam Collapse in Brazil
  • Gold Mining in Burkina Faso
  • Lead in Dominican Republic
  • Bhopal Gas Tragedy in India
  • Deep Water Drill Oil Spill in USA
  • Toxic Dumping on the Ivory Coast
  • Grassy Narrows Mercury in Canada
  • Seveso Dioxin Disaster in Italy
  • Guiyu Electronic Waste in China
  • West Lake Radioactive Waste in USA
  • Flint Water Crisis in USA
  • Love Canal Pollution in USA
  • Newark Lead Contamination in USA
  • Chemical Waste Poisoning in Vietnam
  • Arsenic Poisoning in Bangladesh. 

While the film is flawed, the significance of Minamata, in terms of photojournalism and the fight against pollution, can’t be denied. That makes this film important enough to be recommended. Director Andrew Levitas and writer David Kessler don’t make this a heavy-handed message film and Depp’s portrayal is thoughtful. Depp is 58 and Smith died at 59. For some, it might be hard to think of Depp as old and fragile, but Depp gives us a man you might want to protect, even as he crusades to protect others. Yes, sometimes a photo is worth a thousand words and, in this case, 115 minutes. Someday, the book Eugene Smith and his wife Aileen Mioko Smith wrote, “Minamata,” should be the basis of a documentary but if it doesn’t include Tsuchimoto it will be just another bit of whitewashed history. Until that time, we have this fictionalized account of a great photojournalist’s last assignment and Tsuchimoto’s first documentary readily available to remind us that pollution has long-term devastating effects that can carry on for generations. The lessons learned from Minamata should never be forgotten.  

 

 

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