An isolated elderly patient with the Minamata disease lying on a hospital bed with ventilator support, is the opening scene of Minamata Mandala (2020). A sprawling six-hour-long documentary by acclaimed Japanese filmmaker Kazuo Hara, it is both a humane story and a deeply political film, that exposes the Japanese government’s incompetence in handling the disease and painstakingly captures the decades-long legal and medical battle of the residents of Minamata, Kumamoto Prefecture in Japan.
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The documentary opens in 2004 with a press conference by the Environment Minister apologising to those with Minamata disease for the Government’s negligence in controlling the spread of toxic chemicals that caused the neurological condition affecting several thousands.
Fuelled by decades-long anger and a sense of hopelessness, the people of Minamata confront the minister, demanding a heartfelt apology multiple times during the course of the conference for the damage done. “I’m determined to never repeat this mistake again in the future. I’m truly sorry for what happened,” says the minister, which is met with howls and shrugs.
You cannot help but wonder how perfect the timing of Minamata Mandala is and the current global relevance it holds, in showing humanity’s collective spirit against the Coronavirus.
Hara too seems to agree on its relevance when put in perspective, but is disappointed for having missed an opportunity to hold a public screening for the residents of Minamata, thanks to the pandemic-induced lockdown. The 76-year-old filmmaker, however, is determined to host a screening in autumn this year — if “things get back to normal”.
In the year 1956, Minamata saw the first case of Minamata disease — food poisoning caused by methyl mercury (a by-product of acetaldehyde production) which was discharged from the Chisso factory from 1932 until 1968. The hazardous chemical compound was carried through contaminated fish and shellfish, resulting in an epidemic targeting the central nervous system of the infected. A second wave was reported in 1965, but this time in Niigata Prefecture.
Though there have been films on Minamata disease, the most famous being the 1971 documentary Minamata: The Victims and Their World by noted filmmaker Noriaki Tsuchimoto, it is beyond doubt that Hara’s comprehensive look at Japan’s fractured judicial system, the exploits of the Government in the 1977 Minamata disease certification criteria and the painful struggle of the patients in getting compensated, is a cinematic marvel.describe-yourself-in-one-sentence
Having filmed the documentary across a span of 15 years, Hara says the idea originated in his mind sometime during the early ‘90s when the momentum around Minamata died down.
The epidemic had forced an exodus among residents of Minamata to other cities in search of jobs. He came across one such: a fisherman, who moved to Osaka where he met Hara and they were discussing the impact the disease had on his life. There was a lot of anger among people and agitations were led by Civil Action Groups, one of the representatives being a university professor, also an acquaintance of Hara. He suggested that the filmmaker make a documentary on Minamata; Hara says he postponed agreeing to it for a year, for he felt the subject was not his territory.
Connecting over a video call from his residence at Shinjuku, Japan, Hara, joined by a translator, says, “Noriaki Tsuchimoto’s documentary had a profound impact on me and he was already following up on the case. I even tried meeting him, but they wouldn’t let me because he was in hospital. I never had a chance to ask him, but in a way, I inherited what he started.”
By this time, a string of lawsuits were filed at the Osaka High Court, which, in fact, ruled in favour of some of the patients, thanks to a new medical theory discovered by academics and doctors. “I thought I should at least chronicle the story of second generation Minamata patients and that’s how I started this work.”
The filming for the documentary began in 2001 and roughly ended in 2015-16. Split into three parts with two intervals, Hara takes a matter-of-fact approach to the 372-minute documentary, bringing out a series of first-person interviews with patients, medical researchers and academics who were involved in the study, and the plaintiffs.
Though its runtime may seem laboriously endless, the larger point of the documentary was to give the audience a taste of the long road it takes for justice. The film’s runtime, though justifiable, seemed like it was intended to honour the memories of the people featured, some of whom are no more. To a lighter question on whether the documentary was edited at all, Hara smiles when he says: “Of course, it was. We spent over five years just editing it.”
Hara has earned a reputation for making films that are confrontational in nature, and it does not come as a surprise that Minamata Mandala follows a similar style of filmmaking. It is direct and assertive in showing the Government its fallacies and mishaps, and makes a mockery, especially when the officials participate in a political musical chair of accountability. Though there had been indirect muscling of power, Hara says he was not slapped with any legal cases during the making.
“We had a lot of negotiation scenes between politicians and patients from civil action groups. Those were official court hearings and there was press around while I was making the documentary. Lawfully, they didn’t have the right to send us away... that doesn’t happen in Japan,” he says.footbal-match
Hara has not just invested a stupendous amount of time, but has also sacrificed 15 years of his life to realise this documentary. While admitting that he has changed as a person over the years, Hara says it has been a journey of self-discovery, going as far back as the time he made The Emperor’s Naked Army Marches On (1987), one of his most famous works, to draw a parallel to his older self. The protagonist of that film was a strong, determined individual who took on the government single-handedly.
“I found it intriguing to express stories of oppression from the point of view of a strong individual who opposes the establishment. Rather than filming stories of normal people and their everyday lives and struggles, I was egged on by an individual’s fight, and my first four films were all about that,” he says.
This was Hara’s approach to his films in the pre-Showa era (1926-89) in Japan. At the turn of the century, Hara waited nearly 10 years to find a similar protagonist, like the one in The Emperor’s… but the search was in vain. “I asked myself why I couldn’t find the person. That’s because the system of Japanese government swallows individuals who stand up against it,” says Hara. He was simultaneously making another documentary Sennan Asbestos Disaster (2017), a film on the legal battle between the residents of Sennan, Osaka Prefecture, and the Japanese government.
“It [Sennan…] was challenging because it became a different film from what I envisioned it to be. We screened it at the Yamagata International Documentary Film Festival, though I wasn’t sure of its reception. To my surprise, people walked up to me and they were really moved,” he says, “That is when I realised it was not about an individual but about the fighting spirit of the everyday people.”
“I’m surprised at myself when I look at my younger self and see how I have transformed as a person and filmmaker over the years.”
Sixty-five years on, Hara says that nothing much has changed with respect to the government’s attitude. There is a touching moment in the documentary when a patient, whose application to certify as a victim of Minamata has been rejected four times, says: “Compensation doesn’t trigger forgiveness but it comes from apologies. I leaned towards forgiveness.”
But Hara has a problem with people forgetting and moving on, “Even as recently as when the Emperor and his wife released fish to commemorate the 60th year. There seems to be a lot of pretence that is all over the place and in the media. That attitude of the Government hasn’t changed.”
Minamata Mandala was screened at the recently-concluded International Film Festival Rotterdam 2021.