The Japan News by The Yomiuri Shimbun

Home > Reviews > Movie



The curse of "having a happy face"
Minamata Disease: A Trilogy by Noriaki Tsuchimoto

Jinshi Fujii
Associate Professor, Faculty of Letters, Arts and Sciences, Waseda University (School of Humanities and Social Sciences)

Masazumi Harada has passed away. Dr. Harada was an admirable doctor who, for many years, conducted medical examination and research by walking from home to home in areas where Minamata patients live. He also proved the existence of fetal Minamata disease. However, for people who have seen director Noriaki Tsuchimoto's series of documentary films related to Minamata disease, Dr. Harada is probably best remembered as one of the main characters in the immense series. In The Shiranui Sea, a young girl suffering from fetal Minamata disease asked Dr. Harada if her symptoms could be cured by operating on her head. There are many people who will never forget the voice and gestures of Dr. Harada as he strove to respond kindly to such a difficult question.

As a memorial service for Dr. Harada, the three films in director Tsuchimoto's Minamata Disease: A Trilogy were shown consecutively at the Athenee Francais Cultural Center on this past Tanabata day. Tsuchimoto created some of the finest works in the history of postwar documentary film, both in Japan and throughout the world. There is no need to once again discuss the important position held by this documentary series in Tsuchimoto's works. Instead, I will write about something that I noticed upon seeing all three films together for the first time in many years. I believe that my realization will encourage a fundamental reevaluation of thought for anyone (including myself) who has discussed the beauty of Tsuchimoto's films.

In these films, Dr. Harada raises primitive reflexes and compulsive laughter as typical symptoms observed for fetal Minamata disease. This laughter is a simple reflex, similar to the laughter that infants will show to anyone. If so, the many wonderful smiles shown by patients of fetal Minamata disease in Tsuchimoto's films may actually be the symptoms of mercury which the patients unintentionally took into their bodies. Somewhat thoughtlessly, I had not deeply accepted the truth until now.

The problem is that this matter is not limited to only patients of fetal Minamata disease. More than anything, Tsuchimoto's films have greatly shaken the emotions and thoughts of viewers by recording the "happy faces" of patients. Although we have thoughtlessly labeled these people as "victims," Tsuchimoto thoroughly shows that they are first of all people living by the sea (this is the reason that the main film has the title Minamata: The Victims and Their World). Now I see that the hardships of life have strengthened these "happy faces." However, of all the people who possess such "happy faces," who desired one? Instead of acquiring such a "happy face," wouldn't it have been better to have an ordinary face without any special points, a face which is totally unlike anything which is portrayed in a movie? Wouldn't it have been better to simply lead a simple life unlike anything portrayed in a movie?

Upon further thought, now that I have finally recognized this plain truth, I am horrified at the crime of films which only steal the "happy faces" from people's unhappiness. At the same time, I don't believe that Tsuchimoto was unconscious of this crime in his films. Now, how should director Noriaki Tsuchimoto be discussed in order to explore such horizons?-This is the one question which remains.

Jinshi Fujii
Associate Professor, Faculty of Letters, Arts and Sciences, Waseda University (School of Humanities and Social Sciences)

Jinshi Fujii is in his present position after acquiring credits for a doctoral program at the Graduate School of Human and Environmental Studies in Kyoto University, and working as an assistant at the College of Arts in Rikkyo University. He specializes in film studies, especially Japanese film and contemporary American film. He is also active as a film critic.
His publications as an author and editor include Contemporary Hollywood Cinema: An Introduction (Jimbun Shoin) and Shinji Somai: A Film Director in the Japanese Post-Studio Era (joint authorship; Inscript). He has also carried out the joint translation of I Was Interrupted: Nicholas Ray on Making Movies (Misuzu Shobo).