EVIL DOES NOT EXIST (Aku wa sonzai shinai)

Producer: Satoshi Takata   Director: Ryûsuke Hamaguchi    Screenplay: Ryûsuke Hamaguchi   Cast: Hitoshi Omika, Ryo Nishikawa, Ryuji Kosaka, Ayaka Shibutani, Hazuki Kikuchi, Hiroyuki Miura, Yuto Torii, Taijiro Tamura and Yoshinori Miyata   Distributor: Sideshow/Janus Films

Grade: B+

Ecological dramas are ordinarily pretty clear-cut when it comes to heroes and villains and the struggle, usually legal, to punish despoilers of the environment.  That’s not the way of Ryûsuke Hamaguchi, whose “Drive My Car” won the Oscar for Best International Feature in 2022.  He not only employs a moody, meditative style to explore the plans of a Tokyo company to build an upscale camping facility—a so-called glamping resort—in the Japanese countryside miles from the city and the reactions of local residents to the idea, but adds layers of moral ambiguity to the narrative while ending the film with an enigmatic close that’s sure to provoke and frustrate in equal measure.

The film begins with an otherworldly tracking shot with the camera looking skyward through dense tree branches as it moves along accompanied by the dreamily suspenseful droning of Eiko Ishibashi’s sinuous music, which—as repeatedly happens—abruptly cuts off to introduce Takumi (Hitoshi Omika), a local “jack of all trades” as he describes himself, chopping wood, collecting spring water for the local udon restaurant run by Minimura (Hazuki Kikuchi)—he’s aided in this task by her assistant Kazuo (Hiroyuki Miura)—and taking long walks through the forest with his young daughter Hana (Ryo Nishikawa).  Father and daughter also enjoy meals with Minimura, Kazuo, Harasawa’s mayor Suruga (Taijiro Tamura) and village gadfly Tatsu (Yuto Torii).

The tranquility of Harasawa is upset, however, by the arrival of Takahashi (Ryuji Kosaka) and Mayuzumi (Ayaka Shibutani), representatives of a Tokyo company called Playmode that plans to build a glamping hotel near the town.  In a meeting with villagers, the two explain the venture, drawing objections to the proposal from Minimura, Takumi, Suruga and others.  Most present their views, which center on potential impact on the water supply, with respect, but Tatsu is obstreperous, accusing the firm of rushing things in order to secure pandemic funding from the government before the deadline date. 

As it turns out, he’s right.  In a Zoom meeting with their boss Horiguchi (Yoshinori Miyata) back in Tokyo, Takahashi and Mayuzumi are encouraged to finesse the problems with the locals, perhaps by convincing Takumi to assume caretaker duties at the resort while the other difficulties—the size and location of a septic tank, most notably—are simply swept aside.  The task doesn’t sit well with Mayuzumi, who indicates she might quit her job and move on, or with Takahashi, who becomes enamored with the notion of moving to Harasawa and embracing the rustic life, though he’s comically unsuited to it.

So far the deck appears to be stacked in the usual way.  But matters are actually more complicated.  The Tokyo bosses might be interested only in the bottom line, but their on-site representatives are genuinely concerned that the locals’ interests are being ignored.  Moreover, the villagers are drawn in shades of gray.  Takumi explains that the area was opened for farming by the government only after the war, so in reality they are relative newcomers—“outsiders”—too (in Minimura’s case, she’s been there only four years, and her business depends on the sparkling streams), and have impacted the environment already.  Meanwhile rifle fire echoing in the distance indicates that deer hunters are coming ever closer.  So the right and wrong of the dispute are murkier than it seems. 

In addition Takumi is not an entirely heroic figure.  He frequently loses track of time, leaving Hana to walk home from school through the woods alone and ignoring her even when they’re together in the evenings.  He’s reluctant to take a straightforward stand on the development, calming down Tatsu when he appears to be getting out of hand and suggesting openness to helping the Playmode team.

Hamaguchi maintains a quiet, meditative mood up to this point—some viewers will find the going annoyingly slow, with long sequences of Takumi splitting logs or filling canisters with creek water, and of him and Hana traipsing through the woods.  The habit of editors Ryusuke Hamaguchim and Azusa Yamazaki abruptly cutting off scenes, with Ishibashi’s music left hanging as well, can also be disorienting.  A moment when Takumi drives to the schoolyard to find the students in the midst of a game of red light-green light, alternately rushing forward and stopping like statues, is particularly jarring since what they’re doing is explained only after it seems the action has suddenly frozen.

But in the final reel the narrative takes a sudden turn into high-stakes drama: Hana goes missing, and the entire village—along with Takahashi and Mayuzumi—join in a desperate search to find her.  Takumi and Takahashi apparently come upon her in a tense situation, facing a deer protecting her injured fawn—the one situation, Takumi has earlier suggested, in which a doe might attack an interloper.  Or do they?  The ending is mysterious and haunting, offering no clear resolution to the central narrative about the glamping plan or a simple conclusion about the tension between the natural world and human society.

“Evil Does Not Exist” takes its time in reaching this ambiguous close, the laid-back, unhurried performances contributing to a lapidary feel, with its lush outdoor locations and effectively unadorned interiors, courtesy of production designer Masato Nunobe captured in naturalistic style by cinematographer Yoshio Kitagawa (except, of course, for the hazily dreamlike sequences at beginning and end).  It’s a film of deceptive simplicity that fascinates, puzzles and sometimes irritates, in the process inviting reflection and discussion afterward.