“Even though we might speak about privacy in terms of an individual’s values or sensibilities, if I look more closely at the way each individual experiences the world — their feelings — I’m led to believe that those very values, those different ways of sensing the world, contain an institutionalized, and thus self-contradictory, element. So when I take up my camera to try to challenge those institutionalized elements, I must aim at the world of feelings within individuals. As a result — or as a necessary consequence — I have no choice but to cross into the realm of privacy.” Japanese documentarian Kazuo Hara wrote this in Camera Obtrusa, a compendium of reflections on his numerous films. It aptly encapsulates his approach to his latest, monumental work, MINAMATA Mandala. Fifteen years in the making, it embodies his dedication to the lived experiences of outcasts.
The film is a comprehensive account of the exhaustive, decades-long legal battles fought by residents of Minamata, a small town in southwest Japan. In the late 1950s, widespread cases of a new neurological disease were identified there. This was ultimately determined to have been caused by methylmercury poisoning stemming from wastewater from a chemical factory owned by Chisso Corporation. It took years for any official recognition of the problem, after which Chisso reluctantly agreed to pay sporadic compensation to the victims. To this day, the Japanese government has yet to fully acknowledge the extent of its responsibility, which translates into a lack of financial and medical support for Minamatans who continue to suffer.
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Hara follows in the footsteps of Noriaki Tsuchimoto, whose Minamata documentary series gave the victims extensive opportunities to speak for themselves in the 1970s. But the film is also in line with his interest in turning his camera on entire communities. 2016’s Sennan Asbestos Disaster looks at the inhabitants of Sennan, Osaka, who seek legal reparations for having been exposed to lethal toxins. Reiwa Uprising (2019) charts the upstart Reiwa Shinsengumi political party’s groundbreaking leftist campaign in the 2019 election. MINAMATA Mandala finds a cohort of subjects to constellate its generous 372-minute running time, allowing the viewer to see them as more than mere victims. We can appreciate Hideo Ikoma’s cheerful stubbornness, Shinobu Sakamoto’s unfulfilling love stories, or Takako Isayama’s soft spot for Disneyland. These vignettes contrast with the jarring and emotionally draining scenes detailing the government’s callous stance on the Minamata issue.
We occasionally catch glimpses of Hara operating the camera, and he’ll often engage in conversation with his subjects. He functions at times as an intradiegetic narrator, and is at his most entertaining when he tries to stir the pot with trenchant comments. In response to one of many out-of-court settlements with Chisso, he ponders, “It looks to me they’re selling their souls for a measly 2.1 million yen.” Looming over the film is the shadow of Japan’s unyielding bureaucratic apparatus. In such an ecosystem, any victories not only appear feeble but are also often short-lived. Against this, the resilience of the people populating MINAMATA Mandala is tremendously inspiring.
MINAMATA Mandala is available to stream through July 2 via Japan Society, as part of its program Cinema as Struggle.