Johnny Depp is unrecognisable in the new film Minimata, where he totally becomes photo journalist , W. Eugene Smith , one of the most revered photojournalists of World War II. His performance as this reclusive photographer who is disconnected from society and his amazing career is riveting. Wallowing in a drink and drag addled haze it looks like Smith’s world is crashing down.
Enter Bill Nighy, who plays Robert Hayes, editor of Life Magazine, who reluctantly sends Smith on a secret commission to film Minamata, which has been ravaged by mercury poisoning; the result of decades of gross industrial negligence by the country’s Chisso Corporation. What comes next is an amazing story for our times. It’s filled with cover up and conjecture, corruption and adversity, but is ultimately a redemptive and emotive human story of triumph over adversity.
This film reminds us what it is to be connected to others and part of a community. It reminds us of our humanity and shows how all of us have it within to make a difference. It’s an absolutely beautiful movie and a story that needed to be told. It was obviously a labour of love for the makers of the film.
The film begins in New York, 1971 where we see Smith (Depp) broke, alone and shattered. He is approached by a woman called Aileen Mioko, ostensibly to shoot a commercial. The real reason was to recruit him to document the fishing community and the “ Minamata Movement”, a group fighting for the rights of their community after decades of pollution of their waters. This had led to thousands of cases of mercury poisoning among the local people who had caught and eaten the toxic fish.
Gene and Aileen became a part of the community, living amongst the people and sensitively documenting their illnesses, lives and campaign for compensation.
In 1974 Smith said, “ A photo is a small voice, at best, but sometimes – just sometimes- one photograph or a group of them can lure our senses into awareness.”
One of Gene’s photograph’s made a greater impact than any other. Taken in December 1971, Tomoko in Her Bath showed a parent tenderly bathing her Minamata – Disease stricken daughter. This black – and – white image is not only considered Smith’s greatest photo, but its stark revelation of the physical impact the illness had on people also drew international attention to the Minamata Movement campaign.
The story of Gene ( Johnny Depp) , Aileen (Minami) and their videographer and activist Kiyoshi ( Ryo Kase) is poignant and lovely… a true testament to friendship, dedication and love. The cast is rounded out by one of Japan’s most internationally well – known performers, Hiroyuki Sanada ( The Last Samurai, Wolverine) who does some phenomenal acting as Mitsuo Yamazaki, a leader of the activists. The Chisso corporation is a dark adversary which has the local government, police and goons at their disposal. Chisso’s corrupt chief executive ( Jun Kunimara) is menacing and the monstrous Chisso factory is a dark character unto itself looming over the town.
Minamata is authentic and timely, representing a dark blot on our recent history, a fight which is still ongoing. Yet this movie shows the plight of the people of Minamata without being preachy. Johnny Depp is amazing in this life changing role. I’m going out on a limb and saying that he might win an Oscar nod for this portrayal. Yes, it is that good. I cried, I hid behind my hands, I laughed and I smiled with warmth. This movie will make you feel and bring an awareness of our world ….and surely that is the aim of all good art. Minamata is in cinemas from June 3.
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