“Minamata Mandala”: an unfinished battle for responsibility
Many tragedies never really end, they simply disappear from view. Such was the case with Minamata disease, a neurological disorder caused by mercury poisoning that affected thousands of people in Kumamoto Prefecture in one of the most notorious examples of post-war industrial pollution. .
The culprit was a chemical company called Chisso, which dumped methylmercury in the sea and spent years trying to evade responsibility before being forced to make a massive payment to victims in 1973.
A recent biopic on American photographer W. Eugene Smith, which helped bring the scandal to the world’s attention at the time, underscored the impression that this was a tragic episode from Japan’s past. , rather than a constant concern. This hypothesis is categorically refuted by Kazuo Hara’s “Minamata Mandala”, which documents the protracted legal battles of victims for whom the story is still far from over.
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Wrong criteria established in 1977 meant that many of those suffering from mercury exposure were never officially recognized. Hara’s film begins in 2004, when the Supreme Court ruled in favor of a group of plaintiffs who had filed a lawsuit against the national and prefectural governments 22 years earlier.
This is just the first in a series of court verdicts, each followed by angry autopsies in which the victims and their supporters clash with government officials. Some of the film’s most indelible images are of the administration’s blank faces; Current Tokyo Governor Yuriko Koike, who was Environment Minister in 2004, is just one of those people struggling to muster even the semblance of empathy.
Hara works in the same fashion as his 2017 documentary âSennan Asbestos Disaster,â another story of ordinary people trying to fight state accountability. This film lasted 3 and a half hours; âMinamata Mandalaâ is almost twice as long.
Even with two intermissions, it’s an epic engagement to watch, although it seems fitting for a story that’s measured in decades. The plaintiffs Hara meets know they may not live long enough to see a verdict.
Their struggles in court – which aren’t always easy to follow – go hand in hand with a push to overhaul the medical consensus. Two of the most colorful characters in the film are a pair of university researchers who successfully challenge the scientific basis for assessing victims, proving government experts to have it all wrong.
In a delightful scene, one of them boards a train with a bag containing a brain donated by a patient. He couldn’t have looked happier.
Even though Hara likes good arguments, he is more interested in people than in legal proceedings. He makes entertaining digressions, including an exploration of the past loves of a woman with congenital Minamata disease, reuniting her with some of the men she had fallen for.
A mandala is a symbolic representation of the universe, used to help guide people towards enlightenment. In the film’s remarkable home stretch, Hara does just that, stepping back from the endless chases and calls to ask if there are other ways to wrap up.
He meets author Michiko Ishimure, once a fiery and angry chronicler of the Minamata scandal, shortly before her death in 2018. “Hating someone is dying,” she said, looking positively serene. Sometimes it is enough to forgive.
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