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Hiroyuki Sanada (left) and Minami in a still from Minamata. Photo: American International Pictures

Johnny Depp’s new film about Minamata mercury poisoning divides opinion in Japanese town

  • The film stars Depp as photojournalist Eugene Smith, who travelled to Japan in the 1970s to document the devastating effects on residents
  • The local government, however, has withheld its support for an advanced screening of the film, citing ‘strong emotions in the community’
For several decades, the residents of the Japanese town of Minamata were slowly poisoned in one of the worst documented cases of industrial pollution. A newly released film starring Johnny Depp, set during the city’s public health crisis, has divided opinion and provoked opposition from the town’s local government.
The film, titled Minamata , will be released in Japan next month. Depp portrays US photojournalist Eugene Smith, who travelled to Japan in the 1970s to document the lives of residents who suffered severe mental and physical handicaps after eating fish contaminated with mercury dumped into the town’s water supply. The illness became known as “Minamata disease”.

A citizens’ group in Minamata has organised a preview of the film on August 21 but the city government has refused to support it.

“I believe it is good and right that the film is being shown in an advance screening here in Minamata,” said Nobuo Kasai, an official of Soshisha, a support group for victims and their families.

“I am not sure what to expect, but I certainly want to see the film and I hope that it does help to tell the rest of the world what happened here. Minamata is trying to recover, to rebuild, but it takes time.”

Smith died in 1978 but his wife, Aileen Mioko-Smith, who co-wrote the book which became the source material for the film, criticised Minamata’s local government for not supporting the screening.

“It’s really good the Kumamoto prefectural government is going to formally back the screening, but when it comes to the city government, I think their natural reaction in many cases is to simply shrink back from any mention of the issue,” she said. “There are lots of people who would really just rather it all went away, that it was all forgotten.”

Mioko-Smith, 70, lives in Kyoto but still feels a connection to the town where she lived for two years while working alongside her late husband.

“I was in my early 20s at the time, so those were in many ways my formative years,” she said. “I look at Minamata as my second home, so that is why I do not feel there is a contradiction between completely supporting the residents of the town, who are the victims of the pollution, and also supporting the development and growth of the city and the future of Minamata.”

The local government withheld its support for the screening because it had not been able to see the film and therefore “the content of the movie is unclear”, a city official said.

Johnny Depp plays tortured photojournalist in retelling of Japanese disaster

“As we have not been able to see the film ourselves, we cannot be certain it is rooted in historical fact or if anything has been altered for artistic reasons,” the official said.

“The city considers Minamata disease to be an ongoing issue, a very serious social issue, and we are therefore very cautious about anything that is outside of the facts or history of the disease.

“We are neither for nor against the film, but the issue raises many different feelings among the people of Minamata. There are some people who are glad it is getting more attention, but there are others who say it should be forgotten and left in the past. There are still strong emotions in the community.”

Johnny Depp stars as US photojournalist Eugene Smith. Photo: American International Pictures

Symptoms of Minamata disease include numbness in the limbs, muscle weakness, loss of vision and impaired hearing and speech. In extreme cases, it causes paralysis, insanity, coma and death just a few weeks after the initial onset of symptoms. It can also affect fetuses in utero.

The disease was first identified in Minamata in 1956 and was traced to the release of methylmercury in industrial waste water released from a chemical factory operated by Chisso, which operated from 1932-68.

Chisso and the local government were criticised for attempting to block investigations into the cause of the poisoning, although reports about the situation appeared abroad before Smith accepted a commission from Life magazine to travel to Japan in September 1971 to document the unfolding crisis.

“We had already seen photos of people with Minamata disease so we were prepared for what we found there, but what affected us just as much was the courageous fight the victims were putting up against the company and the government,” Mioko-Smith said.

It was an “uphill battle, every step of the way” by poor fishing families against a wealthy corporation supported at least in part by local and national governments, she said.

Shinobu Sakamoto, a Minamata resident who suffered the effects of mercury poisoning. Photo: Kyodo

The couple’s photo essay about Minamata disease and its impact was published in 1975. Some of the most evocative images show parents caring for their physically handicapped children. Around one-quarter of the images were taken by Mioko-Smith.

During the project, Smith was assaulted by members of the Chisso union, suffering injuries that left him with permanent damage to one eye.

Minamata sufferers in Japan keep up their fight for compensation, 50 years after poisoning

Victims of the mercury poisoning are still trying to obtain full restitution from the national government, although 2,265 people have been recognised as victims of the disease, 1,784 have died. In 2004, Chisso paid compensation totalling US$86 million. There are 10 lawsuits still outstanding, including a number currently before Japan’s Supreme Court.

“The government has always refused to carry out a full epidemiological study of the impact of the poisoning, and that can only be because they do not want to know,” she said. “So these are people who have lived with this the whole of their lives and they are still fighting.”

This article appeared in the South China Morning Post print edition as: Johnny Depp film on Minamata mercury poisoning divides opinion