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Aileen Smith, Johnny Depp Team Up on New Movie Telling the Tragic Story of Minamata

Now in theaters, the new film tells the story of the town sickened by mercury poisoning, at a time when the environmental impact into the sea of the substance was just beginning to be understood.

Arielle Busetto

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Minami and Johnny Depp playing Aileen Mioko Smith and W. Eugene Smith in Minamata Film, © Larry Horricks.

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“I’ll just talk my head off, so please just ask away,” Aileen Mioko Smith said as we sat in an office dedicated to interviews sometime in July.

We were here to discuss the film Minamata (Longride, 2021), released in Japan on September 23, starring Johnny Depp and directed by Andrew Levitas. The film premiered at the Berlin International Film Festival in 2020, but a wider release was delayed due to the COVID-19 pandemic.

The film focuses on the work of W. Eugene Smith (1918-1978) and Aileen Smith, documenting members of the population affected by mercury poisoning in Minamata on the island of Kyushu. 

The story is loosely based on the book Minamata, co-authored by W. Eugene Smith and Aileen Mioko Smith, first published in 1975 by Holt, Reinhart and Winston, and newly printed by Crevis Publishing in Japanese in September 2021.

The film covers the time when activists brought to account the company responsible, Chisso Corporation Ltd., a chemical company that produced fertilizer, among other products, in the town of Minamata in Japan. The environmental tragedy culminated in a feature story in LIFE magazine in 1972, and a court finding in favor of compensating the victims in 1973.

Aileen Smith talked about making the movie to JAPAN Forward in mid-July 2021. She especially highlighted the way the film provided an exciting opportunity to communicate the story to a wider audience.

The film poignantly shows the suffering of people in the town of Minamata. Despite simplifying some of the dynamics, it conveys the story in a powerful way that leaves the viewer outraged at the suffering the residents had to endure.

In an online press conference on September 2, Johnny Depp told journalists in Japan that he hoped the film could “bring attention to the needs of people today.”

Director Andrew Levitas used the same media event to send a message to the Japanese audience, saying, “I genuinely hope that this film inspires everyone to both recognize what has happened and what continues to happen.”

The film started screening in cinemas in Japan on September 23, 2021.

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Author: Arielle Busetto

Arielle Busetto is a journalist at JAPAN Forward. She has finished the intensive Japanese course of the Inter University Center For Advanced Japanese Studies in Yokohama in summer 2018, and is originally from Siena, Italy.

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