Minamata: The Victims and Their World (1971)
Directed by Noriaki Tsuchimoto
February 21 at Anthology, part of its Rituals in the Avant-Garde: Film Experiments in 1960s-70s Japan
Minamata disease was first reported in 1953. It spread throughout a seaside area on the Japanese island of Kyushu where the chemical-producing Chisso Corporation was releasing inorganic mercury compounds into the water, afflicting fishermen and their families, who ate poisoned seafood. The disease would intoxicate a person’s central nervous system, turning limbs and lips numb. Those who got it mildly would strain to maintain basic motor skills, while the extreme cases who didn’t die could be rendered comatose. The listed victim count rose steadily, from 12 (1954) through 14 (1955) through 53 (1956), until Chisso made a reparations contract with victims and their families towards the end of 1959. The company did not publicly admit responsibility, and had even increased contaminating the Minamata River, but officially the epidemic was over.
“We must not let such things happen again,” says a female relative of Minamata disease casualties in Noriaki Tsuchimoto’s documentary Minamata: The Victims and Their World, the first of several films he made about the situation. The film picks up a decade after the reparation contract’s signing, with Minamata residents sickening and dying from mercury poisoning in growing numbers. A movement clamors for Chisso to admit it’s done wrong while Tsuchimoto looks at photographs of the dead and listens to the living tell their stories. A widow explains how the Ministry of Health and Welfare made her shut up and wait to prevent her from filing a complaint; a fisherman demonstrates how best to catch, cook, and eat squid, now a tainted pastime. The filmmaker visits hunched-over people who need help with walking, others who can’t even get out of bed, whole families made pariahs from mistaken fear of contagion, and generations of people born into sickness because their parents ate the wrong fish. A rehabilitation center visit comparing Minamata disease children to those with cerebral palsy quickly reveals which group has worse conditions—the second set of kids, even if physically disabled, at least can understand and remember, while the first, says a center worker, “are pitiful in every respect.”
“Eyes that can’t see, ears that can’t hear, mouths that can’t speak or taste, hands that can’t grasp, legs that can’t walk,” a man cries at a protest rally against Chisso. “You make people bear such babies. You make the sea unfit for bacteria, and you talk of rapid economic growth.” By now, more than 40 years after Tsuchimoto began his project, Chisso has made settlements with over 10,000 people related to Minamata. But no amount of money can bring back the dead. The news last month of the signing of the Minamata Convention, an international agreement to lower mercury emissions, shouldn’t overshadow how thousands of Minamata disease complaints have been filed and settled within the past few years. By acknowledging the victims, Tsuchimoto did what Chisso officially failed to do, but there have been many new victims since his film series ended, and there will be more.
Follow us on Twitter @LMagFilm