Ryusuke Hamaguchi became only the third Japanese director to be nominated for the director prize at the Oscars with DRIVE MY CAR. His original intention to follow this up with a thirty-minute film without dialogue has given birth to EVIL DOES NOT EXIST: a full-length feature that gently teases away at collective complicity in environmental issues before delivering a jarring finale that changes perspective on everything that’s come before.
The initial view, repeated at intervals throughout the film in varying forms, is a shot in the woods, looking up through bare winter tree branches into the featureless sky, accompanied by Eiko Ishibashi’s pensive score. On each occasion the score suddenly cuts out, mid-phrase, adding to the general background of uncertainty as we explore life at ground level. That life is of the residents of the village of Mizubiki, a short distance from Tokyo, making them an appealing prospect to be the site of a proposed new glamping ground.
Takumi (Hitoshi Omika) is doing his best for the other residents of the village, chopping firewood and collecting spring water for a popular local eatery, even if he habitually forgets to pick up his young daughter Hana (Ryo Nishikawa). The only interruption to the tranquillity of life is the occasional, distant gunshot from deer hunters, until the company behind the glamping business come to town and holds a meeting to discuss their plans. The company sends two representatives to outline the plans to the locals, but it becomes less clear how much the villagers’ feedback will be considered when it’s revealed that they’re just workers at a talent agency employed to manage the situation.
Takumi is a man of generally few words, only speaking when necessary or when enjoying the company of his daughter as he raises her alone in rural tranquillity, but he carefully dismantles the glamping plans at the town meeting and the polluting effect it will have on the local ecosystem. The other villagers join him in expressing their frustration, but it seems their concerns may even be shared by company reps Takahashi (Ryuji Kosaka) and Mayuzumi (Ayaka Shibutani). Takahashi privately shares that he may be interested in taking on the suggested caretaker role their boss hopes will pacify the locals sufficiently to allow their plans to proceed.
“The title initially implies a sense of virtue, an optimistic hope that the world isn’t as fatally flawed as our experience would make us believe, but Hamaguchi slowly and surely maps out the different layers of the local community that are a microcosm of our larger society.”
The title initially implies a sense of virtue, an optimistic hope that the world isn’t as fatally flawed as our experience would make us believe, but Hamaguchi slowly and surely maps out the different layers of the local community that are a microcosm of our larger society. If evil doesn’t exist as an entity, then it’s created as a composite by the self-serving interests and general apathy of both the villagers and city-dwellers. As Takumi admits, none of the villagers have been in the area for anything more than a couple of generations, so their impact on the local ecology is potentially just as significant as the glampers. The talent reps aren’t bad people, just caught up in a bad situation, attempting to ease their own consciences in a car journey that now seems very much to be Hamaguchi’s comfort zone.
“In examining the different roles taken by each player on this small stage, Hamaguchi asks us to examine our role and responsibility in society. Do our individual actions really matter in the grand scheme? Is inaction as bad as – or worse – than a small direct action which might have a small adverse effect on the lives of those around us?”
In examining the different roles taken by each player on this small stage, Hamaguchi asks us to examine our role and responsibility in society. Do our individual actions really matter in the grand scheme? Is inaction as bad as – or worse – than a small direct action which might have a small adverse effect on the lives of those around us? It’s how the Japanese writer and director unfolds these questions which makes them so gently compelling, causing us not just to wonder if the indifference or uncertainty of the villagers will doom them to a future of glamorous camping, but if that same apathy will doom us all before we realise as well.
The glamorous camping equals glamping explanation, as part of an online presentation, is one of several moments of well-crafted, gentle humour sprinkled throughout the film; Takahashi’s attempts at log-chopping, coupled with the euphoria of success once Takumi has shared some trade secrets, that make EVIL DOES NOT EXIST a pleasing and engaging watch, even if it might be asking us some uncomfortable questions in the process. But then Hamaguchi takes all of the pieces and throws them into the air in the final five minutes: having sewn subtle seeds to his denouement throughout the narrative, they burst forth into a surprising, frantic finale that feels at odds with the pace of what’s come before, yet the only natural conclusion for the prospective chaos that the conflicting actions of everyone involved could represent. The film won’t quite receive the acclaim of DRIVE MY CAR, and it will be interesting to see how the original half-hour silent project with Ishibashi score (now titled GIFT) tackles the same themes, but there’s enough gristly meat to chew on within EVIL DOES NOT EXIST to satisfy willing audiences.