Can We Ever Escape the Evils of Capitalism?

In Review: Ryûsuke Hamaguchi’s newest film explores the nature of gentrification and rural refuge.

Environmental issues are typically explored onscreen in nonfiction documentaries, such as An Inconvenient Truth and The Cove, both Oscar winners. Occasionally, they get the Hollywood treatment, like inThe China Syndrome, The Day After Tomorrow, and 2012. For US viewers, though, award-winning Japanese auteur Ryûsuke Hamaguchi’s Evil Does Not Exist is off the beaten path of eco-pics. It is a highly artistic film depicting humanity’s troubled, profit-driven relationship with nature.

Evil Does Not Exist (2024) is set in a rural village one hour outside of Tokyo, where locals are pitted against a post-pandemic resort developer. Photo courtesy of Sideshow/Janus Films.

The village of Mizubiki, where Evil is set, is essential to this film’s plot and theme—a woodsy hamlet just a one-hour drive from Tokyo—and the story opens here, as Takumi (Hitoshi Omika) and daughter Hana (10-year-old Ryo Nishikawa in her screen debut) trek through the forest primeval.

Mizubiki has a decidedly Arcadian ambiance, making it a highly desirable site for the Playmode company’s proposed getaway spot for residents of Japan’s heavily urbanized capital. But Playmode’s planned rustic refuge is no mere campsite for urbanites. Instead, it’s a development for “glamping,” or glamorous camping, filled with upscale creature comforts for city slickers so they can “return to nature” in style.

Playmode’s dubious designs come under scrutiny – if not outright attack – at a town hall meeting where the company’s two thirty-something representatives, Takahashi (Ryuji Kosaka) and Mayuzumi (Ayaka Shibutani), make a pitch to convince the villagers that the project will benefit them. However, the slideshow backfires, raising questions and hackles.

The townsfolk may be attached to their backwoods way of life, but they are not rural simpletons. They value their pure spring water, used to make delicious udon served at Mizubiki’s restaurant. They oppose the glamp site’s proposed septic tank because it’s too small and improperly located. Lecturing the glib, corporate shills, the village mayor tells them: “Water always flows downhill. What you do upstream will end up affecting those living downstream.”

Furthermore, there is something odd about the participation of Playmode in the resort project, as the firm is not a real estate developer, but, strangely, a talent agency. A disgruntled eco-militant type speaks up at the meeting, voicing his suspicion that Playmode has an ulterior motive: Cashing in on government subsidies to assist businesses in the wake of the pandemic before the financial aid offer expires.

Playmode’s greedy owner pooh-poohs the villagers’ concerns from afar, ordering Takahashi and Mayuzumi to keep spinning the glamping project to Mizubiki’s inhabitants. But the two are more sympathetic to the close-to-nature inhabitants. Takahashi seems smitten by the rural lifestyle; he tries to clumsily split firewood, poorly emulating Takumi’s deft strokes.

The film takes a stark, sinister turn, as little Hana goes missing in the woods, where she’d often hike amid the trees and wild wasabi. From here, the film turns metaphysical, perhaps supernatural. No spoilers, but maybe evil does exist. And perhaps not just as profit-driven capitalists throwing the natural world out of balance.

“There is no need to understand the destruction of nature as something outside of ourselves as ‘environmental,’” says Hamaguchi, a heavy-hitter on the world cinema scene who has been showered with accolades, including three Academy Award nominations for 2021’s Drive My Car, which won an Oscar for Best International Feature. “The nature that is closest to us all is our own bodies. And, at times, we are forced by society or culture to live a lifestyle that destroys our own bodies, which in itself is a kind of nature. By continuously responding to the demands of companies and workplaces, we deviate from our own bodies’ recovery cycles and ultimately destroy our own bodies and spirits.”

The 106-minute film has a very different sensibility than Hollywood studio movies generally do. Variety calls Evil “a tone poem with an atonal end.” Popcorn munchers hoping for mindless multiplex entertainment may feel befuddled by Hamaguchi’s languid, elliptical style. (“This unstructured way of filmmaking,” the director has said of Evil, “taught me once again about the freedom and potential of filmmaking.”) More adventurous viewers, though, may become absorbed in the story, especially the environmentally minded, who are likely to find resonance in the film’s themes of encroachment, destruction, and conflict.

For filmgoers who enjoy thought provoking, challenging cinema with environmental themes, Evil Does Not Exist screens May 3 in New York at Lincoln Center and in Los Angeles at the AMC Grove.

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