Evil Does Not Exist is the sort of film one makes after winning an Oscar. Following the massive success of Drive My Car, which has all but guaranteed that his films will continue to play relatively widely, Ryûsuke Hamaguchi has taken the opportunity to create an experiment in audience alienation. The film opens with an extended sequence through a forest, where the camera, pointed straight up, captures the shifting matrices of the tree branches cutting across a clear blue sky, accompanied by Eiko Ishibashi’s lush, though not entirely soothing, score. From there, we move to the sight of a man chopping firewood, who later goes to a stream to collect water, these repetitive actions protracted far beyond their obscure narrative function. Eventually, we learn that he is Takumi (Hitoshi Omika), a man respected in the surrounding village for his practical know-how. Reserved and somewhat odd in demeanor, he has an air of mystery about him: he doesn’t seem to do much other than help out various folks with different tasks, while also caring for his young daughter, whom he often forgets to pick up from school. Whatever circumstances led him to this point, Hamaguchi does not key us into them. For a while at least, the director’s main interest lies not in developing any sort of conflict, but in futzing around with the camera, introducing a number of conspicuously odd shot setups for no discernible reason.
A clear narrative through line does eventually emerge, and it proves to be familiar, almost archetypal, in its basic outline, observing how the village’s way of life is threatened by outside forces. A Tokyo-based company is looking to set up a glamping (“glamorous camping”) site in the village and turn it into a tourist attraction; the locals vehemently oppose the plan. The latter are not entirely opposed to the idea itself, but to the company’s transparently inadequate designs, which cut corners in ways clearly meant to turn a quick buck without accounting for the environmental consequences to the surrounding area. All this is conveyed in a lengthy town hall sequence where the locals — all presented not just as noble and altruistic, but also hyper-articulate — face off against a couple of corporate representatives who quickly realize that they are out of their depth. In an attempt to salvage their relations with the locals, they solicit Takumi for potential advice and promise to return with an updated plan. We then follow the pair as they return to Tokyo and try to get their bosses to modify the glamping project accordingly, only to be shot down and ordered to return to the village with the barest of concessions.
Summarized in this way, there’s nothing overly strange about Evil Does Not Exist. The decision to keep Takumi’s background obscure is not, in itself, unusual; and neither is the choice to follow the urban Tokyoites as they come to see things from the villagers’ perspective, or the subplot involving Takumi’s daughter wandering off into the woods alone. No, what’s genuinely odd about Evil Does Not Exist is how these disparate threads come together in its truly confounding finale — an unexpectedly violent act on Takumi’s part that comes across as completely senseless. The film’s title recalls the philosophical doctrine that evil is merely the privation of good. Perhaps the challenge of this ending, then, is to make sense of his actions as a positive act, one whose intentions go beyond the dramatic framework of the film. Those who are able to take up this challenge will find much to appreciate in Hamaguchi’s genuinely discombobulating closing flourish. For others, it will seem less productively confounding than lazily ambiguous: a last-act grab for profundity that resonates only in the abstract.
Published as part of San Sebastián Film Festival 2023: Dispatch 2.