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On Minamata

An Interview with Noriaki Tsuchimoto

Minamata – Kanjasan to sono sekai [Minamata – The Victims and Their World] (Noriaki Tsuchimoto, 1971)

Originally, Minamata was a small fishing village, and it remained so until the end of the Meiji era. In 1910 a factory producing fertilizers was established there, which led to the growth of the village and to the employment of half of the population, which is 30,000 now. The vast notoriety of the factory inspired a long-lasting trust in the inhabitants of Minamata. In 1932 the first transformation happened. The factory started to produce an acid from which vinyl is derived. The waste that was thrown into the sea water included organic mercury. Until 1947, the war brought the activities of the factory to a halt. Later, the discovery of vinyl gave impetus to the manufacturing of this acid.

In 1952, the production had already increased a hundredfold.

In 1953, a fisherman died. From 1954 to 1959, several fishermen were struck by a mysterious disease. 40% died. A higher rate than cholera. They were said to be victims of a lack of hygiene and malnutrition. Many fish were found dead. The same happened to cats and seabirds. Even if the fish tasted good, the fishermen no longer trusted the sea. They did laboratory testing on the water used and discharged into the sea by the factory. The results were unmistakable: the cause of the disease was organic mercury.

Whereas normal mercury burns the skin, in humans, organic mercury has an impact on the nerve cells of the cerebellum, which leads to a loss of balance and partial paralysis of motor functions.

And yet the people continued as usual and still ate fish.

The company managing the factory requested doctor Hosokawa to conduct tests. It is the cat experiment you see in the movie. The result was identical. Doctor Hosokawa decided to keep it secret and just had a filtering system installed. Then the fishermen rebelled against the factory, but got no support from the factory workers, who feared for their jobs. The state, on the other hand, requested other tests from scientists in the capital, but these refused to deliver a final verdict. They provided all sorts of reasons, they accused the fishermen of poor hygiene. For two months the fishermen demonstrated in front of the factory. In the end the factory accepted to indemnify them, but nothing had been solved.

I went to Minamata for the first time in 1965 to make a television documentary. The local authorities and the hospitals refused any collaboration because there had been no final verdict from the physicians yet. The local authorities feared this would divide the general public. The ill people, on the other hand, refused any collaboration, both out of shame and out of fear. I could only film a child with the disease. Indeed, the organic mercury also has an impact on 3- or 5-month-pregnant women. But even there, this was said to be due to poliomyelitis, to inbreeding, as always when a subnormal child was born, without even suspecting that it wasn’t. When I left, I was very discouraged, but at least I had managed to meet the scientists. In 1968 the government acknowledged that “Minamata disease” existed. Later there were attempts from the Ministry of Health, but they got into a conflict with the Ministry of Industry and Trade, whose main objective was the economic development of the country. The ill people at that point were divided into two groups: those who accepted the compensation and those who decided to fight to the end for the acknowledgment of the factory’s responsibilities. The latter, a minority, founded a kind of citizen’s committee also operating within the Kumamoto university. I decided to shoot a new movie in Minamata. But even before that, I founded a solidarity committee in Tokyo, which caused me some troubles with the police. Little by little, I was accepted by the village population. In June 1970 the shoot started; it would last five months.

1970 is the decisive year: new solidarity committees were founded, a sort of pilgrimage to gather money, which I show in the movie, along with the shareholders’ meeting, which was also attended by fishermen having the disease, who were allowed to attend the meetings after purchasing company stock. They did so in order to demand that the company president should admit his responsibility (as shown in the last sequence of the movie).

In Japan, cinema is a social issue. By screening the movie all over the country, by hiring, day after day, theatre after theatre, we have already managed to mobilize 220,000 spectators. In some towns, after seeing the movie, people founded solidarity committees, because what happened in Minamata can happen somewhere else too, considering the current period of major industrial growth in Japan. And everywhere a factory is built, people buy the movie to use it as a weapon. Even if I am not an expert in pollution, I have chosen this topic to show, point by point, that in order to solve cases such as Minamata’s, cases that, like I said, are in danger of happening somewhere else too, a total change of the common good is needed. The solidarity committee demands 100,000 dollars as compensation for each victim, whether they are alive or deceased. Currently there are 580 of them; these are the cases the state had to acknowledge. But as soon as the investigations are completed, in the whole region there will be 15,000 of them, because we cannot neglect the fishermen’s descendants. The global sum to be paid as compensation should be equal to the one needed for a war.

One remark, first of all: Paruchizan zenshi [Prehistory of the Partisans] (1969) came to a contradictory conclusion, whereas Minamata – Kanjasan to sono sekai [Minamata – The Victims and Their World] comes to a clearer one. It is absolutely unmistakable. In Prehistory of the Partisans a few students had understood that there could be no global conflict as long as they remained within the closed university walls, as long as they did not join the people. I believe that was the case with Minamata. Anyway, I wish to continue filming the people who think there is no way out with the current parliamentary politics. As far as the editing is concerned, the idea that guided me during the shoot changed over time, as I got into deeper contact with the described events. I tried not to lose these things during the editing stage. The editing needs to be the reflection of the path that goes from the concept to the reality that surrounds us. The movie is but a maturation of the problems and issues I have always been dealing with. As the owner of the camera and the tape recorder, I can never be equal to the people I film. I refuse to be the filmmaker of my film, which was made independently and in accordance with the reality that spawned it. That is why I tended to edit the film in chronological order.

Published in “Cinema giapponese degli anni ’60,” Quaderno informativo, 41 (Pesaro: Mostra Internazionale del Nuovo Cinema di Pesaro, 1972), 117-119. Statements collected and edited by Gérard Langlois, originally published in Les lettres françaises.