Johnny Depp’s performance in Minamata is proof that Depp isn’t finished yet. Once a student of Marlon Brando, Depp is still there. In the film, he plays an acclaimed photojournalist, William Eugene Smith. Adding to Eugene’s heart whelming journey, Depp brings his own emotional layer to the character. He is marvelous.
The story follows W. Eugene Smith’s coverage of Mercury poisoning in Minamata (City in Kyushu, Japan). The film centers on a lone rebel against a corporate giant, Chisso, that was accused of discharging their toxic waste into the local river, leading to mercury poisoning in the residents. Directed by Andrew Levitas, it is one of the best films you will ever get to experience.
Read More – ‘Minamata’ Summary & Analysis
Who was W. Eugene Smith?
William Eugene Smith was an American photojournalist who dedicated his life to pictures. As Johnny Depp comments in the film, “I am not a good public speaker, but I believe that a picture is worth a thousand words.” For Eugene Smith, his photo essays were his medium to narrate the story. Mostly an artist begins his journey in search of recognition and remuneration. But soon, he realizes that his methods of communication also hold a social responsibility. War (journalism) gave Eugene Recognition, but Minamata (photo essay) gave him Salvation.
The film followed Eugene’s journey from being a wasted famous photographer to covering mercury poisoning in Kyushu, Japan. His role in the fight made an impact that can’t be described in words.
What is Minamata Disease?
It is a neurological disease caused by mercury poisoning. In the film, Chisso was a chemical company that discharged its toxic waste/water into the natural rivers. The fish and other sea animals in these water bodies got contaminated with heavy metals/chemicals like mercury. Quickly, it found its way into the bodies of local people whose sole diet depended on seafood.
The severe mercury poisoning caused muscle weakness, numbness, and damage to hearing and speech. A human body was crippled after being infected by Minamata Disease. But the corporation never really accepted that they are the cause of it. Instead, they imposed it on the people, making them feel ashamed of the disease. It was more pathetic than polluting the river in the first place.
How did Eugene help the local people?
A Japanese journalist cum translator, Aileen, approached Eugene and urged him to take the Minamata assignment. Eugene’s participation brought world recognition to the cause, and his pictures did make an impact.
Eugene was skeptical. It wasn’t just money that he was seeking. His personal sanity was disturbed by losing a partner and the horrors of the war. Eugene wanted an outlet to use his talent for a cause. A quote in the film said, “To fight for those who cannot.” I believe it was a similar thought that Eugene believed in. It was his reason to pick up the camera against giant chemical company Chisso.
His pictures published in the Time magazine weekly compelled Chisso to reimburse the medical and living expenses for the Minamata disaster victims and brought peace to his own mental instability.
‘Importance of Tomoko in her Bath’ in the Film
When Eugene visited Japan, he was hosted by a Japanese couple whose daughter, Akiko, was suffering from Cerebral palsy (caused by Mercury poisoning). Eugene showed his interest in clicking pictures of Akiko, but his request was rejected without a second thought.
Later in the film, when Eugene’s photo lab was burnt down by Chisso’s men, he lost hope. Yet, he appealed to the locals to let him click pictures or else he won’t be able to help them.
Finally, Eugene clicked Akiko’s picture in a bathtub with her mother holding her. The frame was a recreation of Eugene’s acclaimed work, Tomoko in her Bath. It was published in Life Magazine and is considered one of the most important images in the history of photojournalism. Due to its emotional impact, the picture created a viral influence globally, bringing attention to the cause Eugene was fighting for.
Minamata Ending Explained
During the protest, Eugene was beaten up by Chisso’s goons. In the shareholders’ meeting, they also denied reimbursement to the community. In the last, it was revealed that a journalist who used to work for Chisso and had also been instrumental in burning down Eugene’s lab,) was an admirer of Eugene’s work. His own relative was suffering from Minamata disease, and thus, he had all the reasons to help Eugene. He brought him negatives of the pictures which Eugene was working on before his lab was set on fire. Hence, his work wasn’t lost.
Eugene, in the end, clicked Tomoko in her Bath and sent all the pictures to his friend and Life magazine editor Robert Hayes. After releasing Eugene’s photo essay in Life magazine, Chisso was forced to reimburse the locals, which is regarded as the most significant total sum ever awarded by a Japanese court.
In 1971, Eugene married his Japanese translator, Aileen. He died in 1978, as a result of the injuries he received at the protest. The Minamata photographs were the last ones he ever clicked.
Minamata is a 2021 biopic drama based on the real-life of American photojournalist William Eugene Smith. The film is directed by Andrew Levitas.