Johnny Depp film sees Minamata pollution issue as cautionary tale

Kyodo -- Sep 18
For Hollywood star Johnny Depp, the story of an act of industrial pollution that devastated the southwestern Japanese coastal community of Minamata over half a century ago is one that had to be told, not only for its victims but for current and future generations.

The film "Minamata," which he both produced and stars in, arrives this month to do just that in Japan, where despite perceptions that the incident belongs to history, litigation is still ongoing by those who feel they were overlooked for support.

Depp plays Eugene Smith, a renowned American photojournalist whose 1971 photo of a teenage girl sickened by the mercury poisoning that struck the city in the 1950s and 1960s awakened the world to the tragedy and became emblematic of the dangers of industry running amok when economic growth is prized above all else.

The disease was formally acknowledged by local health authorities in 1956, although initially without knowledge that it was caused by the dumping of mercury-tainted wastewater into the sea by a Chisso Corp. chemical plant in the city, which continued for more than a decade.

People who had eaten contaminated seafood suffered paralysis in the hands and feet and visual-field defects. The disease, which was named after the city, also triggered congenital disabilities.

Directed by Andrew Levitas, the film is a fictional portrayal based on actual events described in a 1975 photo essay book by Smith. It covers the three years from 1971 in which Smith and his Tokyo-born wife Aileen Mioko Smith documented the accounts of local patients living with the disease and their campaign to win recognition from Chisso and the Japanese government.