In 1951, the Minamata-based Chisso corporation was one of Japan’s leading producers of acetaldehyde, a then in-demand chemical compound that the company had begun to synthesize using a mercury sulfate catalyst. This production method would make Chisso very rich and the city of Minamata very dependent on the company to keep the economy in motion, but it would soon become clear that the creation of acetaldehyde wasn’t a purely harmless process. In 1956, what would come to be known as Minamata disease was discovered to have afflicted a number of people living in fishing communities by the city’s bay. Those stricken by the illness rapidly lost control over motor functions (many losing the ability to walk and speak), became prone to convulsions, and experienced severe nerve damage and general loss of sensation across the entire body. It became clear fairly quickly that the disease was the result of some kind of food poisoning affecting local fish and shellfish, and that Chisso’s wastewater runoff was the source, but it wouldn’t be until 1959 that it was deduced that Minamata disease was specifically caused by high levels of exposure to methylmercury, a byproduct of acetaldehyde production that was being knowingly dumped into a harbor that fed directly into Minamata bay and the Shiranui Sea.
It’s taken longer still for the victims of the Chisso corporation to receive proper compensation for the company’s violent negligence, with many still fighting to receive financial reparations and apologies from both the company and local government to this day. Countless others remain totally unrecognized as suffering from Minamata disease, and wage legal battles with the Kumamoto governing administration simply to be officially classified as such (Chisso has used their influence to make the legal requirements for receiving Minamata-related benefits unrealistically strict and inflexible). In 1971, documentarian Noriaki Tsuchimoto released Minamata: The Victims and Their World, which became the first in a career-long series of nonfiction films that gave voice to the ostracized victims and sought to provide a comprehensive picture of the systemic failings that allowed the disease to proliferate. Tsuchimoto passed on in 2008, leaving a gap in coverage of the still-struggling Minamata activists that has now been filled by Kazuo Hara and Sachiko Kobayashi, the husband-wife director/producer team (respectively) probably most famous in the U.S. for 1987’s The Emperor’s Naked Army Marches On.
This latest collaboration is their longest yet, the three-part, 372-minute Minamata Mandala, which had its world premiere last July at The Shanghai International Film Festival. Hara is the ideal filmmaker for this material, his concise body of nonfiction film work geared towards portraits of activists and dissidents whose lives and work challenge the hypocrisies and contradictions built into societal infrastructure. Minamata Mandala has its share of commonalities with previous Hara films, like his debut feature Goodbye CP (a portrait of the domestic life of a man living with cerebral palsy) and the recent Sennan Asbestos Disaster, a 215-minute documentary detailing an 8 ½-year lawsuit against the state to compensate victims exposed to asbestos in textile factories. Minamata Mandala ends up pulling these two ideas together, using its six hours to cover courtroom struggle, scientific research, and human interest in equal measure. Drawing from 15 years worth of footage, Hara is able to assess origins and long-standing ramifications of the Minamata bay poisoning with a rare thoroughness that leaves equal room for both righteous courtroom outrage and quiet character study. These latter moments tend to be where Minamata Mandala shines brightest, carried by Hara’s talents as an interviewer. Confidently probing, but never mean-spirited or judgemental, Hara lands a number of astounding scenes organically with his thoughtful lines of questioning, getting details of Minamata patients’ dating lives in one moment, while discussing death in candid, unsentimental terms with aged activists in another (Part three contains a particularly memorable stand off with a folk musician that really highlights Hara’s singular interview instincts). These latter discussions take on an added grimness as Minamata Mandala draws to a close without a clear conclusion, some victories, other defeats, new lawsuits having to be filed… Many of those suffering from Minamata disease will never see justice, but continue to fight and protest as part of an ongoing collective struggle that sadly must extend beyond one lifetime. Minamata Mandala encapsulates this unwieldy spectrum of emotion with a casual elegance and approachable form, superficially daunting, but in actuality, universally compelling.
Published as part of IFFR 2021 June Programme — Dispatch 3.