Combustible Celluloid Review - Evil Does Not Exist (2024), Ryûsuke Hamaguchi, based on a story by Ryûsuke Hamaguchi, Eiko Ishibashi, Ryûsuke Hamaguchi, Hitoshi Omika, Ryo Nishikawa, Ryuji Kosaka, Ayaka Shibutani, Hazuki Kikuchi, Hiroyuki Miura, Yoshinori Miyata, Taijirô Tamura, Yûto Torii
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With: Hitoshi Omika, Ryo Nishikawa, Ryuji Kosaka, Ayaka Shibutani, Hazuki Kikuchi, Hiroyuki Miura, Yoshinori Miyata, Taijirô Tamura, Yûto Torii
Written by: Ryûsuke Hamaguchi, based on a story by Ryûsuke Hamaguchi, Eiko Ishibashi
Directed by: Ryûsuke Hamaguchi
MPAA Rating: NR
Language: Japanese, with English subtitles
Running Time: 106
Date: 05/10/2024

Evil Does Not Exist (2024)

4 Stars (out of 4)

For Deer Life

By Jeffrey M. Anderson

Ryûsuke Hamaguchi's follow-up to his incredible one-two punch of 2021, Wheel of Fortune and Fantasy, and the Oscar-winner Drive My Car, Evil Does Not Exist furthers the notion that we may have another great filmmaker on our hands. It's a movie that will be maddening to some, and boring to others, but it's also a work of great thought and skill, and a work of relevance and poetry.

Evil Does Not Exist is set in a small village a few hours from Tokyo. It's something of an Eden, where the small group of neighbors help each other out, there's a village "chief," and citizens gather their pure water from a bubbling stream. We meet Takumi (Hitoshi Omika), a self-described "jack-of-all-trades" and "odd-job man." He chops some wood, and then fills several containers of clean water, with a neighbor helping out. They find some wild wasabi and agree to pick some and include it in the evening's meal.

Takumi has a headstrong, curious daughter, Hana (Ryo Nishikawa), who often starts walking home herself when her forgetful father is late to pick her up from school. This particular evening, some neighbors gather to discuss the coming of Playmode, a talent agency that, for some reason, is planning on opening a "glamping" ground near their town. (We learn that the sole reason is the subsidies they will receive.)

The next day a town meeting with two representatives of Playmode, Takahashi (Ryuji Kosaka) and Mayuzumi (Ayaka Shibutani), is held. They give their pitch, thinking that will be about it. But the townspeople have questions. They have well-reasoned, logical, cool-headed questions. Why is there not a security person on duty at all hours? And more importantly, why is the septic tank not big enough to handle the site's full capacity? This certainly means that human waste will seep into their groundwater.

At first Takahashi and Mayuzumi try to field the questions, but soon find themselves shamed and humbled. Back in Tokyo, their boss callously tells them that they can't change their budget, but suggests that, if they can win over Takumi, perhaps offer him the security job, maybe they can push the project through. But after arriving, Takahashi and Mayuzumi find themselves second-guessing their mission, especially after Takahashi takes a turn chopping wood and announces that he hasn't felt that good in a long time. But things come to a head when Hana seems to have vanished.

In the film's second half, several themes, sounds, and images come back into play in a kind of mirror pattern, but distorted, as if the intruders have already changed things for the worse, well before any kind of "glamping" ground is built. Hamaguchi employs many repeated shots and themes, such as a view out the back window of his vehicle as he leaves his daughter's school, or walking the same paths through the woods (passing the bones of a fawn).

Most striking is the opening and closing shot, which is hard to describe. It's a traveling shot through the woods, looking up through the tree branches at the sky, but the point of view is as if it's someone lying on their back. (The critic Glenn Kenny compared it to a scene from Carl Theodor Dreyer's Vampyr, in which a character is being carried in a coffin, fitted with a small window to look out of.)

Death is indeed a part of Evil Does Not Exist, but it's a kind of Natural Order death. There's no malice. Things just happen this way. Hamaguchi's title is also part of this line of thinking. The wealthy CEO behind the "glamping" ground clearly cares more about his profits than the townspeople's sewage, but is that evil? What about the subsidies that exist that allow him to go forth with this plan? Are they evil? Instead, maybe everything is a complex system of checks and balances, the movie suggests. If that's true, then not even an eden like Takumi's is safe.

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