Evil Does Not Exist: powerful Japanese eco-drama about one community’s fight against intrusive land development

Hamaguchi’s new film is a poignant tale of capitalist expansion and the ensuing loss of rural living and environmental decline.

Oli Mould, Professor in Human Geography, Royal Holloway University of London • conversation
April 2, 2024 6 minSource

Ryusuke Hamaguchi’s breakthrough cinematic masterpiece, Drive My Car (2021), won him deserved critical acclaim. The film is a feat of storytelling that beautifully juxtaposes the enormity of grief with the everyday mundane.

His new film, Evil Does Not Exist, is equally powerful in its use of juxtaposition. However, here he is tackling the thorny issues of gentrification (where wealthier people move in and displace and price locals out), environmentalism and the urban-rural divide. As someone who researches communities flourishing in the face of political and economic pressure, I was excited to see it.

The film is a serene (yet always on the cusp of disconcerting) tale set in the small village of Mizubiki near Tokyo. Its proximity to such a sprawling metropolis belies the distinctly opposite nature of life in the hamlet.

Evil Does Not Exist follows Takumi and his daughter Hana as village life is turned upside down by a large conglomerate called Playmode. This company wants to set up a glamping (glamorous camping) site for tourists visiting Mizubiki.

Glamping is generally an expensive affair mostly for middle-class professional types who want to camp but in comfort – a sort of encounter with nature but with all the trappings of the modern world. Think tepees with proper beds, wood-burning stoves, toilets and more.

This might seem innocuous – the company name Playmode certainly is trying to project some sort of innocence. However, the paradoxes at play here – nature but not nature, rugged but comfortable – are central to Hamaguchi’s subtle but profound critique of the contemporary forces of a corporate, gentrifying capitalism and its impact on traditional Japanese life and rurality.

Scenes from real life

Takumi is a man of the earth, embodying the village’s connection with nature. His role as a woodcutter and water-gatherer crafts a rich tapestry of the rhythms of rural existence. His observations, whether about the local flora or the nuances of woodland life, resonate with the film’s understated yet profound narrative style.

The glamping development is positioned in stark contrast to the village’s symbiotic relationship with nature. The company want to expand into the natural environment and bring things along that could pollute and destroy the woodland. For instance, the company want to install a septic tank for the waste from the tourists, which the villagers insist will contaminate the local water supply.

Once the villagers all become aware of the potential development and impact on local water quality, risk of wildfires and disruption to wildlife, a town hall meeting is held, to which two company agents are sent to try and appease the villagers. But the pair are useless and know they are.

They are woefully unaware of the damage their company is doing to the village and their role in it. This sort of toeing the company line is eerily close to what cultural theorist Hannah Arendt coined as “the banality of evil”, when people who mindlessly follow orders become complicit in large-scale acts of violence.

This town hall meeting scene, where villagers voice their concerns about water quality and the risk of wildfires to company agents, serves as a brilliant microcosm of the broader struggle between communal values and corporate interests.

For those of us familiar with environmental activism, particularly in small communities, the town hall scene is all too familiar. The frustration of being presented with corporate spokespeople who team up with local politicians, neither of whom are really interested in listening or acting on local concerns, is well known. It is sadly too common a sight within the realm of local politics and environmentalism.

A powerful example of this sort of scene came in 2015 from a farmer in Nebraska in the US who asked a pro-fracking committee to drink their tap water after it was claimed to be safe. This video still circulates on social media.

A changing social fabric

The encroachment of Playmode is not just a threat to the village’s environmental harmony, but also to its social fabric. The company’s plans to create an enclave for tourists in the local village, is emblematic of capitalist urban expansion and shows disregard for the intrinsic value of the community’s way of life.

The villagers’ resistance, portrayed through their articulate and passionate defence of their land and lifestyle alludes to countless real life resistances against the commodification of nature and culture. It conjures up recent striking images of villagers and activists in the small German village of Lützerath, where locals are being evicted to make way for a new coalmine.

I was also reminded of the Standing Rock protests against the Dakota Pipeline in 2016 in the US, where the resistance was conducted mostly by indigenous people.

Evil Does Not Exist is a subtle yet powerful critique of capitalism, told through the lens of a small, traditional village facing the pressures of modern economic forces.

Hamaguchi’s film is a wonderfully poignant reminder of the often-overlooked consequences of economic development and the resilience of communities in the face of such challenges. It’s a narrative that not only tells a story of a single village but also speaks to a more universal struggle between preserving traditional ways of life and the relentless march of capitalist progress.

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The Conversation

Oli Mould does not work for, consult, own shares in or receive funding from any company or organisation that would benefit from this article, and has disclosed no relevant affiliations beyond their academic appointment.

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