The reaction by filmmakers to the devastation caused by the Tohoku earthquake and tsunami that occurred on March 11 has been an example of rapid response with various documentaries on the subject screening at film festivals in the past year. Lucy Walker’s The Tsunami and the Cherry Blossom (2011), a nominee for the 2012 Academy Award for Best Documentary (Short Subject), is comprised of interviews with survivors as they prepared for the beginning of cherry blossom season, while Stu Levy’s Pray For Japan (2011) chronicles the rebuilding of Ishinomaki, the largest coastal city to be hit by the tsunami. The related crisis at the Fukushima nuclear plant has also received attention in Atsushi Funahashi’s Nuclear Nation (2011) and Saburo Hasegawa’s The Deception of Japan (2011), with both directors asserting that the Japanese government has downplayed the severity of the catastrophe. While immediate documentary coverage is expected in the era of digital production, it would be fair to assume that narrative features on the subject would require longer gestation, yet Sion Sono’s harrowing drama Himizu was ready for the Venice Film Festival in September, 2011. The development of Himizu is similar to that of Spike Lee’s crime thriller 25th Hour (2002), which was adapted from the 2000 novel by David Benioff, but revised to reflect the social-political fabric of New York City in the aftermath of 09/11. Himizu is adapted from the 2001–2002 youth manga by Minoru Furuya, with Sono making last-minute changes in order to comment on Japan’s ruptured landscape.
By adhering to the central narrative of the manga and adjusting the backdrop against which it is set to incorporate current conditions, Sono is able to tell a humanistic story with wider societal implications: 14-year-old Yuichi (Shota Sometani) is trying his best to lead a regular life, but a troubled family background continues to undermine his efforts at normalcy, especially when his father’s financial mistakes place his life in danger. Yuichi takes charge of the family rental boat business, which is located by a lake in a quake-ravaged region. He seems to be the only member of the household with any sense of responsibility as his mother (Makiko Watanabe) sleeps around, while his father (Ken Mitsuishi) drinks heavily and openly wishes that his son was dead. ¥350000 in government compensation was offered for each family member who died or was declared missing after the disaster, and Yuichi was saved from drowning by his father, who in retrospective would have been happier to collect. Yuichi has a romantic admirer in Keiko (Fumi Nikaido), a classmate with similarly difficult domestic circumstances: Keiko’s mother (Asuka Kurosawa) wants her daughter to take her own life, as she believes that her life would be better without her offspring. Yuichi tries to ignore the interest of his self-declared ‘stalker’, but it is the arrival of the yakuza in the form of loan shark Kaneko (Denden) that causes his biggest problem: Yuichi’s father is heavily in debt, and he is now expected to come up with the cash.
The cruel world in which these complicated relationships and volatile conflicts take place is seamlessly established through combining location shooting with a special set that was constructed in Ibaraki Prefecture. Himizu is a completely immersive experience, with its scarred visual palette of mounds of rubble, muddy riverbanks, and a local school that is struggling to regenerate spirit. Sono does not exactly reign in his hyperactive tendencies, but scenes of characters wandering over wasteland exert a raw power. The sound of distant waves, Geiger counter readings, and news reports serve as reminders that this community is still in the very early stages of recovery, suggesting that those who have physically survived could still succumb to the psychological abyss of post-trauma. Abandonment, abuse, and absenteeism are all explored in a film that is arguably Sono’s most scathing social critique to date due to its grounding in recent tragedy. The performances by Sometani and Nikaido are remarkable, with both conveying their respective approaches to dealing with immeasurable challenges (he just wants to be ‘ordinary’, she dreams of being a devoted wife), while showing how these survival systems are undermined when further pressure is applied. At over two hours in length, there is perhaps too much happening in Himizu to take in with one sitting, and its succession of emotionally gruelling scenes means that it is unlikely to be a candidate for repeat viewing. Still, it is hard to imagine any concerned viewer failing to be moved by such a genuinely compassionate piece of filmmaking.
Himizu opens at the ICA and Prince Charles Theaters in London on June 1st, 2012 with screenings in other regional UK theaters to follow.