Ryûsuke Hamaguchi’s latest offering after the widely acclaimed international hit “Drive My Car” is nothing short of enigmatic and unpredictable. While “Evil Does Not Exist” (Aku Wa Sonzai Shinai) may rein in the grand symphonies of its predecessor, it crafts its own mesmerizing and ever-shifting cadences within a more compact, slow-burning drama. This subtle tension gradually unfurls, leaving an unsettling sense of foreboding that creeps up on you just as opposing sides of a conflict seem to inch towards the elusive common ground – a prospect that’s open to interpretation. For some, a perplexingly ambiguous ending might prove to be a breaking point, but this eerie, clandestine thriller centred on violations against nature is an undeniably potent work of art.
Should one discern Chekhov’s graceful shadow cast upon “Drive My Car,” the latest creation from the Japanese writer-director, it could be argued that the film shares a certain affinity with Ibsen. Its thematic tensions revolving around the possible pollution of a water source and the impassioned reactions during a local assembly occasionally conjure echoes of “An Enemy of the People.
Born from a collaborative concept conceived by Hamaguchi and composer Eiko Ishibashi, this project initially took shape as a silent film intended for live performances with Ishibashi providing musical accompaniment. However, the director’s observation of human interactions within the natural world during the shoot led to the expansion of this concept into a full-fledged feature film, where Ishibashi’s ever-shifting musical compositions assume a significant role.
The primary backdrop unfolds in a quaint rural community just outside Tokyo, where the local residents lead simple lives, finding contentment in their daily routines while respecting the sanctity of the surrounding natural environment.
Remarkably, a full ten minutes elapse before a single word is uttered on screen. In this opening sequence, DP Yoshio Kitagawa’s camera gazes upwards through the wintry canopy of trees, embarking on a leisurely backward stroll through the serene woods. All the while, Ishibashi’s melodic overture gradually weaves in subtle notes of foreboding dissonance. Down on the forest floor, 8-year-old Hana (played by Ryo Nishikawa) meanders through the snow, while her single father, Takumi (portrayed by Hitoshi Omika), toils away in a different part of the woods, wielding a buzzsaw and axe to chop firewood.
When Takumi’s friend Kazuo (played by Hiroyuki Miura) arrives to assist him in collecting fresh spring water, destined for the local noodle bar, the two men engage in brief conversation. They make casual remarks about the distant echoes of a deer hunter’s rifle and savour the flavour of a cluster of wild wasabi leaves. As Takumi abruptly departs, realizing he’s running late to pick up Hana from daycare, his friend reminds him about the “glamping people’s” briefing that evening. Familiar with her dad’s occasional forgetfulness, young and self-reliant Hana has already taken it upon herself to walk home.
The term “glamping” and the associated idea appear to clash with the natural environment, almost like an affront to nature itself. The initial encounter between local residents and two representatives of the development project is a notably intense moment. This scene unfolds without any musical accompaniment, taking place in real-time, and it showcases the sharp, keen-eyed observations reminiscent of Frederick Wiseman’s approach in his documentaries on social institutions. It also evokes a subdued sense of unease, reminiscent of the impromptu town hall scene that propels Cristian Mungiu’s compelling film “R.M.N.” into a higher gear.
The Tokyo-based company driving this somewhat opportunistic development is Playmode, a talent agency that has benefited from government COVID relief funds with a looming deadline for expenditure. This time constraint leads to rushed construction plans and a project riddled with unexpected issues that catch the two Playmode staffers off guard. Mayuzumi, who is politely meek, and Takahashi, who exudes slick confidence, find themselves navigating a minefield of questions from the audience after a rather superficial presentation.
The primary concerns voiced by the attendees revolve around the location and capacity of a septic tank, which could potentially lead to pollution downstream if the site operates at full occupancy. Additionally, there is apprehension regarding the risk of wildfires stemming from unsupervised campfires. The community’s water source emerges as a vital lifeline, as articulated by the village mayor, while the owner of a local noodle joint points out that one of the perks of relocating from the city is the enhanced flavour of her soba noodles when cooked with spring water.
Amidst this tension, there’s a subtle touch of humour in Takahashi’s futile attempts to placate the crowd by discussing the economic benefits the new shops and businesses would bring to the community. However, his words fail to reassure anyone in the room, leaving the meeting on a palpably tense note.
In the subsequent sequences, Hamaguchi shifts the perspective to Mayuzumi, who genuinely feels embarrassed about their lack of preparation, and to Takahashi, who’s somewhat chastened but still holds onto the hope of finding a quick solution. Following a frustrating Zoom meeting with their unconcerned boss, they are sent back to the village bearing gifts of alcohol and an offer for Takumi, the local jack-of-all-trades, to take on a caretaker role due to his expertise in the area.
During the car journey back to the village, Hamaguchi takes the opportunity to humanize the two bantering agents, who clearly find themselves out of their depth. Subsequent scenes offer a touch of understated humour as they reach out to Takumi and, after sharing a meal, offer their assistance with various tasks. Their cluelessness becomes endearing, and a sense of poignancy emerges as these outsiders begin to appreciate the tranquillity and unhurried pace of the village, along with the gratification of contributing to simple chores.
However, this newfound balance is soon disrupted. Just when everyone seems to be settling in comfortably, Hamaguchi abruptly introduces a crisis that brings the entire village together and triggers an unexpected reaction from the typically stoic Takumi. This event sets the stage for one of the most perplexing endings in recent memory—a genuine head-scratcher that will intrigue and challenge as many viewers as it frustrates or even infuriates.
Whether it was by happenstance or deliberate planning, the decision by the Venice Film Festival to host a press screening of the film on the eve of its public premiere appears to be a stroke of genius. I woke up this morning with the final scene still replaying in my mind, pondering the various possible interpretations in what feels like a collision between a disturbing dream and a stark reality. Regardless, this film maintains a tight grip on its audience right up to those jaw-dropping concluding moments.
The ensemble cast, which includes some local non-professionals, convincingly portrays a close-knit community. Kosaka and Shibutani, as the bumbling outsiders, undergo illuminating character arcs as their initial detachment gradually dissolves with each new revelation about these strangers and the distinct everyday challenges they face. Hamaguchi’s skill in orchestrating interactions among diverse groups of people shines through, and the shifting dynamics during the briefing scene bring to mind the fantastic rehearsal sequences in “Drive My Car.”
What’s truly surprising about the cast is the inclusion of Omika, who isn’t a professional actor but was part of the crew in Hamaguchi’s “Wheel of Fortune and Fantasy.” He delivers a strong, grounded performance, portraying Takumi as a caring yet forgetful father and an unwavering worker. There’s a hint of sorrow surrounding the unexplained absence or loss of Hana’s mother, evident in the photographs scattered around their home. His gradual shift in demeanour during the final act is genuinely unsettling.
Kiyagawa’s cinematography maintains a loose and fluid style, featuring a rough-edged aesthetic that complements the natural environment. Ishibashi’s ever-evolving score, characterized by abrupt cutoffs, harmoniously aligns with Hamaguchi’s daring shifts in perspective and tone. While “Evil Does Not Exist” may not possess the overwhelming emotional impact of “Drive My Car,” it stands as a profound exploration of character and environment, a testament to a mature and exceptionally talented filmmaker unafraid to take creative risks.