MINIMATA – Review by Susan Granger

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It’s hard to imagine a Johnny Depp film being ignored but that’s what happened after Minamata premiered at the Berlin International Film Festival back in 2020, when Covid shuttered most theaters.

Depp plays renowned W.W.II photojournalist W. Eugene ‘Gene’ Smith, who, by 1971, had become a jaded recluse: broke, wasted, estranged from his children, and suffering from PTSD.

Then, suddenly, his interest was piqued when Japanese translator Aileen Mioko (Minami) told him about a plague of mercury poisoning that was devastating the coastal community of Minamata.

Commissioned by LIFE magazine editor Robert Hayes (Bill Nighy), Gene took off for rural Minamata, where he learned that the Chisso Corporation was routinely dumping highly toxic chemicals into the surrounding sea.

With mercury contaminating their water supply, villagers – especially children – have been suffering severe neurological damage for many years. First discovered in 1956, Minamata disease impacted thousands of people by also poisoning the fish and shellfish which comprise the mainstay of their diet.

Guided by Aileen, surly Gene comes to respect the locals’ manners and mores, eventually earning the trust of villagers who were initially reluctant to be photographed. That resulted in his Pieta-like image of a mother cradling her emaciated, deformed daughter in a traditional Japanese tub, titled ‘Tomoka Uemura in Her Bath.’

Based on true events from Smith’s autobiography, it’s adapted by co-screenwriters David K. Kessler, Stephen Deuters and Jason Forman, along with director Andrew Levitas. But they never really explore Gene’s motivations. That’s particularly obvious when Gene impulsively gives his camera to a crippled boy, who then shoots his own set of photographs.

As if to compensate for the storytellers’ lack of cohesiveness, cinematographer Benoit Delhomme delivers riveting visuals, accompanied by Ryuichi Sakamato’s poignant score – while Johnny Depp projects a searing image of pain under pressure.

The end titles detail what happened, including how industrial poisoning continues around the world, along with its deadly consequences.

On the Granger Gauge of 1 to 10, Minamata is an empathetic 7, available for rent or purchase on Prime Video and/or Apple TV.

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Susan Granger

Susan Granger is a product of Hollywood. Her natural father, S. Sylvan Simon, was a director and producer at R.K.O., M.G.M. and Columbia Pictures; her adoptive father, Armand Deutsch, produced movies at M.G.M. As a child, Susan appeared in movies with Abbott & Costello, Red Skelton, Lucille Ball, Margaret O'Brien and Lassie. She attended Mills College in California, studying journalism with Pierre Salinger, and graduated from the University of Pennsylvania, Phi Beta Kappa, with highest honors in journalism. During her adult life, Susan has been on radio and television as an anchorwoman and movie/drama critic. Her newspaper reviews have been syndicated around the world, and she has appeared on American Movie Classics cable television. In addition, her celebrity interviews and articles have been published in REDBOOK, PLAYBOY, FAMILY CIRCLE, COSMOPOLITAN, WORKING WOMAN and THE NEW YORK TIMES, as well as in PARIS MATCH, ELLE, HELLO, CARIBBEAN WORLD, ISLAND LIFE, MACO DESTINATIONS, NEWS LIMITED NEWSPAPERS (Australia), UK DAILY MAIL, UK SUNDAY MIRROR, DS (France), LA REPUBBLICA (Italy), BUNTE (Germany), VIP TRAVELLER (Krisworld) and many other international publications through SSG Syndicate. Susan also lectures on the "Magic and Mythology of Hollywood" and "Don't Take It Personally: Conquering Criticism and other Survival Skills," originally published on tape by Dove Audio.