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Minamata: The Victims and Their World

Posted by martinteller on December 21, 2012

In the city of Minamata at the southern tip of Japan, the Chisso fertilizer company dumped methylmercury into the water.  The chemical was ingested by the fish, and local residents who ate it contracted a severe form of mercury poisoning which became known as “Minamata disease.”  The first victims were identified in 1956.  Symptoms include loss of hearing, vision, and speech, poor motor control, ataxia, numbness, madness and death.  One autopsy showed that a victim had lost most of her brain.  There is no cure, and rehabilitation has minimal results, especially among congenital sufferers who contracted the disease from their mothers.  Chisso denied responsibility and continued polluting the water for years, duping the people and suppressing studies.  In 1959, they offered a pittance in “sympathy payments” for victims and their families.  10 years year, the government officially named Chisso as responsible, and the victims were split between those willing to let the powers that be decide fair compensation, and those wanting to take the company to court.

In his first of several documentaries on the topic, Noriaki Tsuchimoto focuses entirely on the victims.  Although the film culminates in an explosive confrontation at a Chisso stockholder meeting, he doesn’t talk to anyone from the company or the government.  He talks to the sufferers from the disease and their relatives, trying to reveal their struggles.  Although we do see the extent of their ailments — often quite tragic, especially the congenital cases — it is not exploitative.  Tsuchimoto balances their suffering with peeks inside their daily living, and for a fishing community, this is often closely tied to the sea from whence their afflictions came.

It’s a very humanist approach, and is paced in a way that has an easy rhythm to it.  Like Ozu’s “pillow shots”, scenes of sad human drama are interspersed with images of life in the area.  One never feels that things are either rushed or dragging.  There are some sound sync issues, but they are often covered up with cutaways, or add to the sense that these folks’ minds are off-kilter.  In the climax, it gives the proceedings even more frantic energy.

At the time the film was made, there were 121 officially recognized victims.  Now there are over 2000, not including those who either didn’t come forward (the disease had a social stigma attached, as many feared it was contagious) or were denied certification by a government too eager to mitigate the financial burden on Chisso.  Legal action against the company continues.  The congenital cases will be well grown up by now, but many are unable to care for themselves.  I would be curious to see Tsuchimoto’s other films about this saga of environmental pollution and corporate indifference, reminiscent of our own Love Canal situation.  Heartfelt without being sentimental, angry without being dogmatic.  Rating: Very Good (84)


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