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'Evil Does Not Exist': Great Theme Diluted by Weak Acting and Self-Indulgent Subjectivity

Hamaguchi's "Evil Does Not Exist" impresses with poised delivery but suffers from deadpan acting and an unembellished style that is bland even for slow cinema.



"Evil Does Not Exist" (©2023 NEOPA, Fictive)

Ryusuke Hamaguchi's new film, Evil Does Not Exist, hit Japanese theaters on April 26. Following its Golden Lion Award win at the 2023 Venice International Film Festival, the film has received almost universal acclaim. 

The Guardian described it as demonstrating "such calm assurance and artistry that it compels a kind of wistful, if uncomprehending, assent." American news website The Verge praised it as "a remarkably quiet movie." But does Hamaguchi's latest offering live up to all the hype?

The Plot

Set in a bucolic Japanese community, Evil Does Not Exist centers on widowed handyman Takumi, who lives with his eight-year-old daughter, Hana. 

Takumi and the village residents are deeply troubled about the damage a new real estate project could inflict on their ecosystem.

Takahashi and Mayuzumi, two young PR professionals, are tasked with convincing local townspeople about the planned glamping construction. During a meeting, Takumi and others inform them that their proposed septic tank capacity is insufficient for the development. They explain that the sewage will leak into the village when the snow melts. 

Takahashi and Mayuzumi's perspectives shift as they listen. However, when they report back to their boss, they are instructed to enlist Takumi's help to convince the residents. Instead, they choose to remain in the village. Hana then disappears, sending the community into a panic.

Nature's Ambiguity and Tensions of Perception

The director revealed that the title dawned on him during a brainstorming session. "It's challenging to discern evil in nature," he reflected. "While bears might attack people, we don't necessarily perceive them as evil, do we? Evil often arises from human interpretations of malice," he mused. "At times," he continued, "we confront what we perceive as evil, convinced of the righteousness of our actions."

"Evil Does Not Exist" (©2023 NEOPA, Fictive)

In essence, the film grapples with Hamlet's timeless insight that "there is nothing either good or bad in this world, but thinking makes it so." Through Evil Does Not Exist, Hamaguchi endeavors to articulate the tension between humanity and the natural world.

Where the film excels is in embodying this central theme. Composer Eiko Ishibashi's intricate ambient textures beautifully capture the film's shifting atmosphere, seamlessly transitioning between contemplations of nature's beauty and ominous foreboding.

Hamaguchi's rendering of the Nagano countryside is also skillfully understated. Snow-covered lakes shimmering under the setting sun and wildlife peacefully roaming through forests offer a striking contrast to rotting carcasses and thorns soaked in blood.

Acting Troubles

Unfortunately, Evil Does Not Exist falls victim to several recurring issues that have marred Hamaguchi's past work. 

Hamaguchi frequently advises actors to deliver their lines with a deadpan expression rather than relying on traditional acting techniques. While this helps alleviate the problem of overacting, the director does not always succeed in this. 

This emotionally vapid acting style might hold an aesthetic appeal in certain contexts, but Evil Does Not Exist lays bare its shortcomings. Nearly all conversations among village residents feel stiff and devoid of life. In other words, there is no chemistry between any of them. In a community meant to be close-knit, this comes across as awkward and disruptive.

The debate between villagers and developers is the centerpiece of the film. Hazuki Kikuchi's character, who works at a local soba restaurant, delivers a speech that simply falls flat. She ends up sounding more like a junior high school speech contestant than a woman concerned for her livelihood and community. Consequently, the scene lacks any notable tension or drama that would mark it as the film's centerpiece. Its significance is simply its duration.

A Lack of Balance

Another is Hamaguchi's tendency to avoid risks and lean too hard on subjectivity. Although his unembellished style lends itself to Nagano's natural beauty, it comes across as bland and stiff elsewhere. 

For any arthouse film to be more than just an exercise in self-indulgence requires a meticulous balance between objective and subjective presentation. It is also necessary for a film to be entertaining. 


In a recent interview, Hamaguchi emphasized that this time, he wanted to make "an entertaining film" as though it were a novel idea. "For me, a truly entertaining movie does not offer a definitive answer," he stated. "Entertaining films encourage viewers to engage in their own thoughts and interpretations, providing them with the joy of personal reflection."

This is undoubtedly true, but something tangible must first stimulate interpretation. Subjective art is a masterpiece when it doesn't alienate audiences despite its subjectivity. But Hamaguchi hasn't quite achieved this. For example, his lengthy shots of characters smoking lack the beauty Wong Kar-wai imbued them in In the Mood for Love. Takumi's terse conversations do not brim with the peculiar vivacity and charm of those between Willie and Eddie in Jim Jarmusch's Stranger than Paradise. Evil Does Not Exist's final scene is not genius but a disaster. And that is not entertaining.

While Hamaguchi shows promise as a potentially great director, he has not quite reached that level with Evil Does Not Exist.


Author: Daniel Manning