The story of the mercury poisoning in the town of Minamata in Kumamoto, Japan, is a powerful one, now told through a movie starring Johnny Depp. It is based on a book that Aileen Mioko Smith wrote with her then-husband, photojournalist W. Eugene Smith in 1975.
Anticipating the impact of the story on today’s environmentally conscious public, JAPAN Forward sat down with Aileen Smith, 71, in July to discuss her life with W. Eugene Smith, the process of Minamata becoming a reality, and what we can do about the environmental crisis going forward.
It’s clear from talking to Aileen Smith that the memory of her husband has a special place in her heart. She refers to him as “Gene” with moving familiarity, and talks about the period of her life with him as “very dear to me.”
Documenting the mercury poisoning victims in Minamata in the 1970s was a monumental task in many ways for the people involved. It was the first work for Aileen, just in her 20s. It was the last major work by Eugene Smith in his 50s, after over 30 years of a prolific career at LIFE magazine, Newsweek, and TIME.
Aileen met Eugene in New York in 1970, when she worked as an interpreter for Fujifilm. The company had enlisted the photographer for a commercial.
The two grew close together, and she helped him prepare a retrospective on his work, a 600-print exhibition called Let Truth Be the Prejudice.
At the time, they encountered Kazuhiko Motomura, who was instrumental in bringing the exhibition to Japan. He was also the one who first told them about Minamata. He then invited Eugene to come photograph the people there.
(The film departs slightly from reality, as it portrays Aileen telling Eugene about Minamata.)
“We heard about Minamata together in October 1970,” Aileen recalled. “We decided right then that we wanted to go. It was the first time we had heard that people could be maimed and killed by industrial pollution, and we immediately wanted the wider world to know.”
Chisso Corporation was dumping a byproduct of fertilizer production in the bay. The production byproduct contained a derivative of mercury, organic mercury into the bay. Mercury was a catalyst used to produce acetaldehyde, and intermediate in producing plastics and other chemicals. The mercury contaminated the fish being caught in Minamata Bay, and by extension those consuming the fish. This process had been going on for almost 15 years, as the first case of mercury poisoning was recorded in 1956.
Yet the link had never been proven, and the company thought to be responsible had not been held to account for the injuries caused to the locals.
Aileen shared how Eugene was naturally pulled to the topic.
“Gene had always wanted to return to Japan. He was injured at age 26 in Okinawa [during WWII], and he saw all the suffering and injured civilians. He felt that somehow, in a former life, he belonged to that region.”
Eugene Smith had been a war correspondent, and had suffered several injuries due to plane crashes. Later in his life he suffered beatings, and even malnutrition, when he temporarily quit his job at LIFE magazine.
Aileen then talked about the photographer’s affinity for social issues, portraying suffering, and those trying to cure the victims. This can be seen in his photo essay Country Doctor, and his photography of Albert Schweitzer’s work in West Gabon.
“His war injuries had led him to be very dependent on the medical profession, and a lot of his photo essays were to do with this group, like country doctors and midwives. It all tied in [with Minamata].”
Aileen also explained her own background, and what brought her to Minamata as an American-Japanese who had grown up between two cultures. At the time she was a fresh graduate of Stanford University.
“I was always interested in justice, even as a child as we lived in Japan ー relatively well-to-do, with an American father and the biggest house in the neighborhood. I would wonder where the helpers would come from or why my Japanese friend would live in a shack.”
Later, having spent time in the United States, Aileen heard about Minamata, and it was clear that she wanted to go. “I wanted to go back to Japan. This was communicating between two cultures.”
Aileen continued: “As a student, you just write papers. For me, it was an opportunity to figure out a way in which I could help the world.”
Eugene and Aileen Smith arrived in Japan in 1971, and would stay here for three years. During that time they worked side by side, photographing, interviewing, and documenting events.
Some of the drama and bonds with the locals are displayed in the movie, such as a scene where Johnny Depp is teaching photography to a young boy with a disability caused by mercury poisoning.
The film shows the couple interacting with several families and hearing their stories, such as a father played by Tadanobu Asano, and the difficulties in gaining the trust of the locals and having them share their stories.
Aileen talked a little about some of the memories she cherished from that time, in particular interacting with the families who had children with congenital mercury poisoning.
“It’s not like they (the children) ate the fish. It penetrated through the placenta. They were teenagers, in the midst of their youth. They were like 15, 16, 17. I’m also living my early 20s [at the time], so we got to know each other,” explained Aileen.
One episode which is poignantly portrayed in the film is the moment of taking a photograph that later became famous, Tomoko and Mother in the Bath. Tomoko was one such congenital victim. The sensitivity of the picture made the shot one of the most famous works by Eugene Smith.
In real life, the episode also encapsulates the difficulty of documenting the suffering of others without intruding into the privacy of the victims. In 1998 handed the copyright to the parents of Tomoko. Aileen Smith later released a statement, saying that the decision not to share the picture widely was taken so as to “give some peace” to Tomoko and her family.
The climax of the film comes at the time of the court’s announcement of its decision, when a number of victims were awarded compensation from the defendant in the case, Chisso Corporation. Aileen recounted how this also had a great impact on her as a young adult.
“These people — the victims, supporters, lawyers, the judge, everyone — functioned really well, and justice can happen,” recounted Aileen.
“Experiencing that at the age of 22, and seeing that happen, instilled that sort of fire in my heart. It’s about faith and hope, and [the realization] that things can change.”
The Making of Minamata
Aileen has gone in various directions throughout her life since her years in Minamata. She worked on photography for Shusaku Endo, the novelist who wrote Silence (Taplinger Publishing Co., first published 1966), in Nagasaki. She has moved in the direction of activism on the theme of nuclear energy and the environment.
Thinking about the process of participating in the film, she reflected: “This opportunity with the movie coming out now is an excellent mixture, for me, of all my worlds, and the need I had felt for some years to get the word out even more, in different ways.”
The Tokyo native was clear, however, that this was not “her” film. She sees her role as one of facilitating the film by providing information, and guiding director Andrew Levitas around Minamata when he visited the city in 2018.
Aileen reflected that ultimately she was grateful for the story to have a wider audience, especially thanks to the stellar cast and crew that participated in the film.
Johnny Depp is joined by the French-Japanese actress Minami Bages, Tadanobu Asano, Jun Kunimura, and Bill Nighy. David K. Kessler wrote the script, and Ryuichi Sakamoto composed the soundtrack. The movie itself was filmed in Serbia and Montenegro, with Japanese extras who were living in Eastern Europe.
At the same time, Aileen was also clear about the difficulty in being a bystander when you are a character in the story.
“In a way it’s scary, because you don’t know what’s going to happen. It’s very hard to let go, especially when you are the actual person, and the experience is so dear to you. You want to be protective of the victims, and conservative,” she said.
“But you have to let that all go, because it’s about moving people’s hearts, it’s not about documentary accuracy,” the American-Japanese reflected ruefully.
From the point of view of the storyline, naturally several elements were adapted for the sake of drama. The film features an episode where the Chisso Corporation CEO, played by Jun Kunimura, almost abducts Eugene Smith in order to convince him of the safety of the factory. In reality, Chisso agreed to be interviewed by Eugene and Aileen in a civil manner, as reported in their book Minamata.
Several characters are a mélange of different people. Aileen herself has said in many interviews that she and Eugene were “co-authors” of the book Minamata. Yet she is portrayed as having a somewhat secondary role compared to the renowned photographer.
Although it was known that Eugene Smith was moody and depressed, and a profuse consumer of whiskey, there is an almost self-indulgent portion of the film that portrays the photographer’s inebriated spells.
Yet, in the end, the film does one key thing: it brings an important topic to the world stage, and in the final credits viewers are reminded that there are many other such disasters around the world.
Compared to nearly half a century ago, Aileen reflected, “the whole world is now more aware that we need to work on the environment together, especially with global warming.”
The film also brings home the message that the Minamata story isn’t over yet.
“It is very delicate and sensitive for people in Minamata. There are still many victims not recognized, people who were toddlers at the time,” explained Aileen. They were “told by the government that they don’t have proof that they ate contaminated fish.”
She continued: “The biggest issue now is that, over 65 years, the government has never conducted a really good health survey or epidemiological study.”
Ultimately, Aileen Smith recalls the warm reception that the film received at the Berlin International Film Festival 2020, and hopes that the release in Japan can foster a fruitful discussion of the issue.
“People in Minamata, even people who don’t want to talk about Minamata, will say, ‘Johnny Depp is going to star in this film,’ and it brings about conversation.”
She said, warmly, “The key thing that people (the viewers) want to be is moved, to be inspired.”
The film started screening in cinemas in Japan on September 23, 2021.
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Author: Arielle Busetto