By Oliver Lyttelton | www.oliverlyttelton.com September 6, 2011 at 7:50AM
If you're after a quick response to recent events, particularly in the case of a cataclysmic disaster, cinema is not your medium. It takes years to write and develop even a bad script, let alone the financing, casting, shooting and pre-production of a film. And that's even without taking into account a reticence to address what has the potential to be traumatic material; there's a reason that it took half-a-decade for the events of 9/11 to reach the screen, and even then many believed that it was too soon for what some dismiss as mere entertainment to address such epoch-changing events.
Such an event was the March 11th earthquake in Japan, which caused a tsunami, which itself caused a radioactive meltdown at the Fukushima power plant. At least 15,000 lives were taken, and 125,000 buildings were destroyed and damaged, and the effects will be felt in the country for generations to come. With six months not yet having passed since the event, you'd be pretty stunned to see a film referring in detail to the event, but Sono Sion's "Himizu" doesn't just refer to it, it even shoots scenes among the devastation left in the tsunami's wake.
Of course, for such a speedy response, Sono (the Japanese auteur whose "Love Exposure" recently reached U.S. shores, which we're pretty fond of) didn't just pull the film out of thin air; he was already prepping "Himizu", an adaptation of Minoru Furuya's 2001 manga of the same name, and, like Spike Lee did a decade ago with 9/11 and "25th Hour," incorporated recent events into the movie on the fly. The plot involves Sumida (Shota Sometani), a schoolboy with a violent father and a neglectful mother, who wants simply to live an ordinary life and run his family's boat hire shop. Tsunami refugees like former company president Yoruno (Tetsu Watanabe) have set up camp near the stall, forming a kind of surrogate family, while he has an admirer, schoolmate Keiko (Fumi Nikaidou), who will do almost anything for him. But Sumida seemingly can't escape violence -- from his father, from the yakuzas that his dad owes money too, from strangers -- and, after he's abandoned by his mother, Sumida's wish to be ordinary is soon countered by an obsession to wreak vengeance on the criminals and low-lifes around him.
We're not going to beat around the bush here. We hated the experience of watching the vast majority of "Himizu." Hated it. If we weren't reviewing it, we might have walked out (as plenty did). Much of the film is played at a ludicrously high pitch, with most of the dialogue shouted or screeched, the first half of the film consists principally of the main characters receiving a series of beatings (and never fighting back), set against near-unrelenting rain, the tone wavers in a second from grim desperation to slapstick comedy, and the music mostly consists of classical pieces of crashing obviousness -- Barber's "Adagio For Strings" features prominently more than once (although, in fairness, it may have been a temp score, given Sono's turnover on the project).
And yet... And yet as soon as the film was over, we found ourselves warming to it -- perhaps initially because the experience of watching it was so unpleasant, but warming nonetheless. And it lingered in our minds, even with other films screened in the intervening time. Now, twenty four hours later, we're still not doing cartwheels over it, but we're also happy to acknowledge that it's an important, and fitfully great, picture.
As anyone who's seen his previous work will attest to, there's no way to deny that Sono is a huge talent, and there are individual shots of great beauty and power. The opening scenes, showing the post-tsunami devastation, are jaw-dropping, and there's a stunning murder sequence, shot with a crane that rises, and dips, and rises again, that would have made Hitchcock proud. The sound mix is extraordinary, even if we still have qualms about the music, with fireworks and rushing water and geiger counter noise all dropped in in places.
Thematically, while it's tricky for an outsider to penetrate in places -- it's a real state-of-the-nation kind of film -- Sono brushes against some fascinating territory such as the tsunami refugees, well-to-do middle class businessmen and professors reduced to robbing drug dealers. The spate of stabbings that Sumida sets out to stop, all the time threatening to tip over and perpetrate one -- based on recent spates of similar cases -- is something that the director clearly believes speaks to a deeper malaise in Japanese society. And then there are the deeply horrible, almost Roald Dahl-esque parents. Both Sumida and Keiko's parents tell their 14-year-old offspring that they wish they'd never been born, Sumida's dad continually lamenting that his son survived a near-drowning, robbing him of the insurance money, while Keiko's mother and father are actively planning for her death.
And it all climaxes in a truly beautiful ending, the frantic white noise of the first part of the film finally taking a break for a quiet, deeply sad lament to the loss of innocence, climaxing in something strangely joyful. We'd politely suggest that Sono didn't necessarily need to play the film at such a long, abrasive note to reach the same conclusion. But maybe we're wrong. We do however think that, by the nature of its production -- it's really two films jammed into one, the manga adaptation that Sono originally set out to make, and the picture of Japan post-earthquake -- "Himizu" only occasionally gels together, but more often it finds two parts sitting awkwardly next to each other. But all in all, it stands as a testament to the benefits of eating your cinematic vegetables. We might have shifted restlessly in our seats, eying the fire exits, for much of "Himizu"'s running time, but that doesn't mean that we regret seeing it. We might even see it again. [B]