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'Evil Does Not Exist' — or does it? — in this mysterious Japanese eco-drama

Ryô Nishikawa plays Hana in <em>Evil Does Not Exist. </em>
via Janus Films
Ryô Nishikawa plays Hana in Evil Does Not Exist.

What do you do after you've directed a talky, three-hour Japanese drama that became a critics' darling and major arthouse hit and received four Oscar nominations, winning one for best international feature?

If you're Ryûsuke Hamaguchi, the gifted 45-year-old filmmaker behind Drive My Car, you step back and go for a long walk in the woods, in search of fresh air and new ideas.

The result is a mesmerizing new movie, Evil Does Not Exist, that leaves behind the mostly urban settings of Hamaguchi's earlier films like Happy Hour and Asako I & II. It takes place in a rural village within driving distance of Tokyo, that's home to a close-knit community of about 6,000 people.

The first two characters we meet are a young girl named Hana and her single dad, Takumi, a woodcutter who knows the surrounding forest better than most. The movie sets a gently pastoral rhythm, following father and daughter as they walk through the woods, identifying trees and other plants and stumbling on the occasional dead deer.

Takumi, wonderfully played by Hitoshi Omika, knows that their presence here is disruptive, but he and his fellow residents do strive to be good, responsible stewards of the land. And so they're incensed when they learn that a company is planning to build a glamping resort in the area, with potentially disastrous environmental consequences.

And so Evil Does Not Exist begins as a kind of ecological parable, pitting townsfolk against corporate developers. The centerpiece is a brilliantly written and acted sequence in which the company reps meet with the locals, promising that the campsite will bring tourists and boost their economy.

But the locals aren't fools, and one by one, they raise issues, from the risk of wildfires from BBQ pits to the septic tank that will pollute the town's water supply. The sequence has some of the texture of a Frederick Wiseman documentary, and it's similarly skilled at turning a slideshow presentation in a community center into the stuff of engrossing drama.

There's a turning point in the story when one of the company reps — Takahashi, played by the actor Ryûji Kosaka — seems to fall under the spell of this wooded region and even fantasizes about moving here. For a while it looks like the movie might be the story of a city mouse turning country mouse.

But nothing about Evil Does Not Exist turns out to be predictable. As he's done before, Hamaguchi gives us characters who are too complicated and richly drawn to be reduced to any one type. Yet that doesn't explain how hauntingly different this movie feels from his other work.

It's more sparsely written and more unsettling in tone. The musical score, composed by Eiko Ishibashi, is both lush and ominous, and it often cuts off abruptly, to disorienting effect. The outdoor scenery is shot with a crystalline beauty, but the longer you watch, the more sinister the imagery becomes. At times Hamaguchi positions the camera at ground level looking up, as if to show us the perspective of the earth itself. In these moments, the human characters suddenly look strangely alien, like the interlopers they are.

I've seen Evil Does Not Exist a few times now, and each time it's held me rapt, only to leave me feeling profoundly unnerved. Much of that has to do with the ending, which is confounding in ways that have already generated a lot of debate. I'm still wrestling with the ending myself and what it says about the human compulsion to dominate one's environment. I'm also still getting a handle on the title. It's as if Hamaguchi is trying to get us to look at the natural world, human beings included, beyond the comforting framework of good vs. evil.

Nowhere is this more evident than in the character of Takumi, whom Omika plays with an inscrutability that both frightens you and draws you in. He may be a loving father and caretaker of the land, but Takahashi misreads him at his own peril. It's the two lead actors' performances that keep you watching through the shattering final moments. Whether or not evil exists, I'm glad a movie this mysterious and powerful does.

Copyright 2024 Fresh Air

Justin Chang is a film critic for the Los Angeles Times and NPR's Fresh Air, and a regular contributor to KPCC's FilmWeek. He previously served as chief film critic and editor of film reviews for Variety.