“Evil Does Not Exist” tells the familiar story of man versus nature through the unconventional narrative style that Japanese director Ryusuke Hamaguchi first earned recognition for with “Drive My Car,” crowned Best International Feature at the 2022 Academy Awards. Hamaguchi’s filmmaking remains unhurried and contemplative, always servicing the story and its characters, rather than appeasing the audience with stimuli unprovoked by the narrative. Others’ actions and life’s events are often mysteries, and Hamaguchi never strives to betray this truth. He never gives the audience more than they would see or hear if they were inside the story, making his films impressionable, despite their reserved nature. The narrative is never rushed, the dialogue is never intrusive or extraneous and no needless information is given away. The film meditates on raw life, its unflinching pursuit of realism creating a ponderous atmosphere that is wondrous to behold.
“Evil Does Not Exist” closely follows Takumi (Hitoshi Omika, “Moonlight Shadow”), the “odd-job guy” of Mizubiki Village, a rural community in Japan. Takumi and his daughter Hana (Ryo Nishikawa, debut) are closely connected to nature; Takumi maintains and responsibly harvests the natural resources of the forest, and Hana often wanders through it. The small, close-knit community is faced with a crisis when developers bring plans to invade their untouched, snow-capped forest with an invasive “glamping” site, threatening the environment’s health. The film takes on a mysterious, even sinister, tone as Takumi’s patience for the outsiders, who bring only ignorance and destruction, is tested.
Little is known about Takumi, a man of few words, except that he is a respected countryman and adored father. At a briefing with representatives of the glamping project, Takumi voices his concerns without so much of a twitch of his eye. Whether he is passionate or dispassionate, for or against, is unknown, and he remains an inaccessible figure to the audience and the developers. Takumi flashes his cards in the beginning of the movie; however, when he hears distant gunshots and shows disdain for deer hunting. The significance of this moment is deliberately withheld from the audience — Hamaguchi plants this seed of contempt to sprout much later in the film. Takumi is implied to be burdened by grief, but the significance of this, beyond the obvious, is revealed only at the film’s very end, without assistance from the filmmaker. Hamaguchi’s narrative style relies heavily on indirect foreshadowing and characterization, sowing clues with surgical precision that can only be uncovered in hindsight.
Takumi’s character and the spirit of Mizubiki Village are not limited by a lack of information, and Hamaguchi paints a remarkably powerful portrait of ordinary rural life. The village people adamantly resist urban development, concerned mostly with the pollution of their water and the prospect of increased wildfires, all while speaking with eloquence and emotion about the role of nature in their personal relationships — something the city people are incapable of understanding. The community’s essence is found in its inhabitants’ shared responsibility to care for their environment and those they share it with, rather than in exploitative efforts to accumulate wealth. They are not placated by the economic boost glamping tourism would bring, concerned only with preserving the fabric of their community. Hamaguchi criticizes capitalism and human interference with the natural world, placing himself squarely on the side of environmental justice.
While the general message of “Evil Does Not Exist” is clear, the metaphors Hamaguchi discreetly presents to the audience are far from it. The film’s ending will likely be subject to much debate among moviegoers. “Evil Does Not Exist” is like “Drive My Car” in that it possesses a dreamlike quality. The audience is subject to what Hamaguchi does best: adding an otherworldly dimension to a story grounded in realism. The final scene’s intention and meaning are unclear, which I suspect is what Hamaguchi intended. So much of this film is open to interpretation that its effect proves difficult to articulate. Hamaguchi’s filmmaking is a thing to witness — you have to see it for yourself.
Daily Arts Writer Maya Ruder can be reached at email@example.com.