Movie of The Week: Minamata: The Victims and their World (水俣ー患者さんとその世界, 1971)
Documentary director Noriaki Tsuchimoto presents an honest and bleak portrait of the victims of Minamata disease. In 1956, it became known that the Chisso corporation had been dumping methyl-mercury into local waters. As a result of eating fish poisoned by the pollutants, several residents of the vicinity of Minamata developed extensive health problems. Deterioration of brain and nerve function, along with congenital birth defects ruined the lives of more than 200 residents. Many more victims likely exist, but as stigma around the disease increased, many were afraid to admit that their afflictions were actually due to Minamata disease.
Tsuchimoto interviews several residents, from a fisherman who after years of therapy was able to finally walk in a straight line, to children born with the disease who face lifelong impairments, to troubled and afflicted adults, who have been shunned by their communities. The extensive political controversy surrounding an economically struggling community plays a major role in Tsuchimoto’s documentary, with many residents afraid to speak out due to the communities dependence on Chisso manufacturing, and the burden of an intense social shame in a conservative culture which often blames the victims for the plight of the community.
Minamata: The Victims and their World is filmed entirely in 16mm black and white, silent film stock with audio manually synced. The result is an immediate and disturbing series of snapshots of the community, which make their plight and anger seem almost unreal, but impossible to ignore.
This incredible document of one of the most famous and terrible examples of corporate disregard for human health culminates in an unforgettable scene of the Minamata victims trip to the annual shareholders meeting of Chisso in Osaka, Japan. A victims group realized that they could become shareholders merely by owning one share of stock, which would gain them access to the annual meeting, of which the Chisso management would be present. Victims dressed in white with slogans drawn on their clothing, disrupt the meeting through Buddhist chants and loud demands to be heard. The incredible scene of the small against the big quickly degenerates into a riot, with Minamata supporters directly confronting the Chisso management in front of an army of media representatives. Ultimately, the Chisso management flee the scene, but not after a gut wrenching confrontation of a desperate mother who’s child faces a lifetime of illness with the CEO of Chisso, who heartlessly dismisses her. Mostly, the Minamata vitims seek recognition, admitting that money can do little to repair the damage done. The Chisso management, in their hope to avert the legal and image related damages that would result, coldly refuse.
In the end, the massive negative publicity surrounding the shareholders meeting earns the Minamata victims a large compensation package, but no amount of money could ever repair the damage to human life exercised through Chisso’s irresponsibility. To this day, they legal fight for compensation and recognition continues. Tsuchimoto’s documentary remains and a disturbing reminder of the indifference of corporate entities to health and human welfare, but also stands as a testament to the power of brave, ragtag filmmakers to keep this memory alive.
Unrelated documetary, but it does use some of Tsuchimoto’s footage: