The Movie Waffler New Release Review [Cinema/Digital] - MINAMATA | The Movie Waffler

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New Release Review [Cinema/Digital] - MINAMATA

minamata review
Photographer W. Eugene Smith travels to Japan to document the effects of a ruthless chemical company's pollution.

Review by Eric Hillis

Directed by: Andrew Levitas

Starring: Johnny Depp, Minami, Hiroyuki Sanada, Ryo Kase, Jun Kunimura, Bill Nighy, Katherine Jenkins

minamata poster

After decades of hiding himself beneath heavy make-up and playing a variety of fantastical characters in an attempt to escape his pretty boy reputation, it's easy to forget just what a good actor Johnny Depp can be when he's playing a regular human being. In director Andrew Levitas's Minamata, Depp gets to play a human for a change, even if the make-up and prosthetics are thickly applied for him to do so.

minamata review

Depp plays the photo-journalist W. Eugene Smith, who was famous for his pictorials in Life magazine, none more so than his 1971 images of the effects of chemical pollution on the residents of the Japanese town that lends Levitas's film its title.


An alcoholic troublemaking renegade, Smith is just the sort of character Depp is attracted to. Here we see Depp deliver something halfway between his outlandish portrayal of gonzo writer Hunter S. Thompson in Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas and his more relaxed performance of the same character in The Rum Diaries. He's something of a contradictory figure - a narcissist who admittedly blames himself for his problems. His editor at Life, Robert Hayes (Bill Nighy), reluctantly puts up with his antics because he knows he's the best photographer he's ever worked with.

minamata review

That's why Hayes indulges Smith's request to travel to Minamata to document the chaos caused by Chisso, a chemical company that employs most of the town's residents while poisoning the local water with its toxic dumping. The pollution has led to children being born with deformities, an affliction that will come to be known as "Minamata disease."


In Japan, Smith struggles to maintain a state of sobriety, haunted by his wartime memories of the last time he "visited" the country. Trying to keep him afloat is local activist Aileen (Minami), who is falling in love with him in the process. The pair would later wed after the events of the film, but the movie fails to convince us of why this pretty young woman would fall for this liver-spotted, self-centred jerk.

minamata review

Minamata never quite decides if it's a biopic of Smith or an environmental thriller, and it never fully satisfies as either. Little time is devoted to the residents of the toxic titular town, who are largely background characters. What time we spend in Smith's company doesn't exactly enamour us to the shutterbug, and any charm he possesses probably has more to do with Depp's movie star charisma than the character as written.

I have to profess an ignorance regarding Minamata's subject before watching the movie, and it's strange that it took 50 years for this story to reach the screen. While you'll probably learn more from a Wikipedia article on the subject, Minamata makes for a passable entry point for an education on the horrors committed by Chisso in the name of profit.

Minamata is in UK/ROI cinemas and on Digital from August 13th.