Banner Image: Ryo Nishikawa in Evil Does Not Exist. Image: 2023 NEOPA Fictive
Japanese director Ryusuke Hamaguchi’s latest project didn’t come about in the most conventional way. After 2021’s Drive My Car earned him international acclaim and an Academy Award, Hamaguchi partnered with composer Eiko Ishibashi to create video footage for her live music performance.
Heading to rural Japan near where Ishibashi lives to capture “interactions of people in nature”, Hamaguchi also decided to develop the footage into a narrative feature film. His project would be distinct from Isibashi’s live-score film performance but intimately connected with it…
And, so, Evil Does Not Exist was born, which has since won the Silver Lion Grand Jury Prize at the Venice Film Festival and been named best film at the BFI London Film Festival.
The film follows Takumi (Hitoshi Omika), his daughter Hana (Ryo Nishikawa), and other residents of Mizubiki Village, who all live in a mindful symbiosis with nature. One local restaurateur uses water from a nearby brook to make her noodles, and the village chief repurposes a pheasant quill to use in his son’s harpsichord.
However, the village’s modest, delicate, and thoughtful way of life is disturbed when two corporate representatives blow into town and reveal a shoddy plan to construct a glamping site nearby, which would pollute their water supply.
The film opens with a shot of a tangled forest canopy, which rolls past like a tapestry, as if we’re taking a walk, staring up at the trees. It’s a very long shot that lingers on the swelling sounds of Ishibashi’s score, so long that it might put viewers off immediately. But this opening sets the tone for the rest of the film. Evil Does Not Exist is a very visual piece that shies away from a straightforward narrative and places the natural world at its centre.
Each scene is patiently drawn out, with cinematographer Yoshio Kitagawa often remaining fixed on a spot long after a character has ambled off. This technique typically leaves the audience with nothing more to contemplate than the sounds of the forest: the soft rustling of dry winter branches, far-off calls of birds, and sounds of distant characters trudging on frozen earth.
Choices like these will undoubtedly frustrate audiences who aren’t looking for an arthouse picture and are eager to see the narrative push forward. On the other hand, some viewers will find Hamaguchi’s mindful, sensory approach to filmmaking refreshing and strangely powerful. Where Evil Does Not Exist succeeds is in the paradoxical atmosphere it creates, which is one of simultaneous serenity and eerie unease.
Dialogue is few and far between, and it’s mainly reserved for inside scenes, which push what little plot there is forward. One instance that comes to mind is the forum hosted by the company planning to build the glamping site, where Hamaguchi pits the practical, environmentally-conscious, and informed residents against the clueless corporate representatives.
He’s careful not to make a melodrama out of the proceedings. Viewers might be struck by the naturalist dialogue and performances as they argue over septic tanks and campfire regulations. Though the subjects of conversation may seem rather tedious, and the stakes rather small compared to what audiences are used to, Hamaguchi’s realist approach is surprisingly stirring, and you feel that the heart and soul of this village are on the line.
What’s also commendable is the way Hamaguchi takes time to look inside the machine that’s driving this relentless gentrification. The two company representatives – ultimately won over by the residents’ concerns but forced to strive ahead with the plans anyway – are carefully re-introduced to us in the second act of the film as vulnerable, three-dimensional humans, who are as much victims to the powers that be as the villagers. But their attempts to help ultimately prove more destructive than their initial plans and things take a tragic turn.
What Evil Does Not Exist does quite cleverly is lure us into the understanding that our environment is a delicate thing, teetering on the edge of destruction, before swiftly reminding us that we are, in fact, the vulnerable ones. While undoubtedly beautiful, Hamaguchi’s natural world turns out to be an unyielding force that threatens to swallow us whole if we don’t tread carefully.
Evil Does Not Exist is a quiet, contemplative, beautifully shot, and ultimately unsettling film. Though its stylistic choices will enrapture some, they’ll certainly irk others – and with only a frail skeleton of a narrative and an ambiguous ending, it may leave some of its audience unsatisfied.
Evil Does Not Exist will be released in UK cinemas on 5th April 2024.
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