Minamata: The Victims and Their World (1971) is a documentary by Tsuchimoto Noriyuki that takes a close look at the remote population of Minamata, Japan, and the 1960s outbreak of a serious neurological disease that began as a result of mercury poisoning in the town’s water supply. Addressing what became Japan’s worst case of environmental pollution, Tsuchimoto’s engaging documentary looks the lives of the victims and families affected by Minamata disease—from first encounters with the disease to methods of living and coping to the demands for representation and justice on behalf of the suffering.
Tsuchimoto uses careful cinematic language to establish a personable connection between the Minamata people, himself as the filmmaker, and us as viewers. A series of interviews with victims and their families, the first half of the documentary intermittently features strong close-ups, long pauses, and quiet cuts to portraits and images of home life. This sense of closeness and languor built through the cinematography lures viewers in to look at the documentary through a gentle and compassionate lens.
We see this translated in all the scenes inside the homes and neighborhoods—particularly in food and dining settings. The story of Patient No. 97, Tomoko Kamimura is one that really proves the family setting as a powerful way for audiences to connect to Minamata disease on a human level. We meet Tomoko and her family at the dinner table. Before introducing us to Tomoko, the camera opens the scene with a long panoramic shot across the dinner table where we see Tomoko’s father and younger siblings eating together. The camera pans across, ending its portrait of the Kamimura family with a shot of Tomoko and her mother who sits cradling Tomoko as she feeds her daughter. With the children eating happily around the table, Otōsan making conversation with the guests, and Okāsan talking and laughing above everyone else, we get the feeling of a typical family household. However, as the camera reveals, we are hit with reality when we finally see Tomoko.
By inviting viewers into the family’s home, Tsuchimoto invites us to understand their hardships and to realize the significant effect the disease has had on Tomoko’s relationship to other people as well as her relationship to her own body. The camera films Tomoko’s younger siblings eating, feeding themselves, and looking healthy as ever. This is juxtaposed with Tomoko who does not eat solid foods and cannot feed herself, much less even sit up on her own. “She’s the oldest child and the smallest,” Tomoko’s father says to Tsuchimoto. Minamata disease has stripped Tomoko of her natural-given roles. As a result of her debilitating disease, she cannot fulfill the conventional role of the eldest daughter to her parents or of the big sister to her six younger brothers and sisters.
This affected relationship with food gives insight to the severity of Minamata disease. This thought connects back to the story of an old couple and their seventeen-year-old daughter Jitsuko Tanaka who suffers from the disease. Like Tomoko, Jitsuko cannot feed herself and must rely on her family. Ideas so simple and vital to our livelihoods—to be able to eat food, drink water—are deemed impossible for victims like Jitsuko. As Jitsuko’s mother speaks about her worries for the future, the camera captures close shots of Jitsuko’s hands and smiling face. We see a cheerful child just as we saw a joyful family in Tomoko’s home. However, from the teary words of Jitsuko’s mother, we know that, in reality, these children face unimaginable obstacles.
Tsuchimoto tells the story of Minamata on a very participatory, emotionally invested level. He’s not concerned with chronicling the history of the disease. Visiting the patients and listening to their stories, Tsuchimoto doesn’t claim to be their representative either. Instead, he lets them speak from their own perspectives, within the intimacy of their own homes. With familiar images of family and food, Tsuchimoto makes the real conscious effort to provide a sense of how the victims live and an idea of the extent to which they’ve been affected by this disease.