Following the breakthrough international success of Drive My Car, one of the best Japanese movies of 2021 and winner of an Oscar for Best International Feature, Japanese director Ryûsuke Hamaguchi returns with the provocatively titled Evil Does Not Exist. In contrast to Drive My Car, a 3-hour exploration of loss and letting go, Evil Does Not Exist is a more intimate, meditative film—yet something dark lurks below the surface.
In a small rural village outside of Tokyo, single parent Takumi (played by Hitoshi Omika) lives deep in the forest with Hana (Ryo Nishikawa), his young daughter. They enjoy an idyllic and serene lifestyle, with Hana wandering alone through the forest and Takumi spending much of his time chopping wood and bringing water to the locals. The pristine water, along with the untouched forests and peaceful wildlife, is a source of pride for the villagers and the backbone of their community. This peace is disrupted by the arrival of representatives from a Tokyo-based talent agency who are looking to build a “glamping” site in the village to attract tourists and take advantage of government grants.
Much of the film’s runtime feels comforting and patient. Hamaguchi takes his time, steeping us in the rhythms and routines of rural life. With numerous wide shots and this unhurried directing style, the film is reminiscent of slow-cinema works by Japanese master Yasujirō Ozu in their contemplative pacing and prioritization of mood over action. Filled with long takes (there are shots of Takumi chopping wood that go on uninterrupted for several minutes), Hamaguchi intentionally forces the audience to slow down and experience life at the pace of the villagers.
It comes as no surprise that the film was originally intended as a 30-minute short with no dialogue, accompanied by a live score composed by Japanese musician Eiko Ishibashi. Many sections of Evil Does Not Exist are wordless, highlighting the stillness of life in rural Japan and featuring the beauty of Ishibashi’s score, which is one of the best of the year. Hamaguchi will be premiering Gift, the original dialogue-free short film, at Belgium’s Film Fest Ghent in October 2023, complete with Ishibashi’s live score.
All this is not to say that the film is boring. Rather, the slow moments serve to highlight and focus the moments of action. Once we become accustomed to the meditative pacing, a town hall meeting where villagers push back against the developers feels thrilling and almost propulsive.
Hamaguchi explores complex issues of development, capitalism, and resource exploitation with heart, humor, and a deep sense of empathy. We get to understand not only the villagers’ perspective, but also the motivations, dreams, and frustrations of the corporate developers. From this empathetic viewpoint, we may start to believe the movie’s title is meant sincerely. However, as the film evolves and darkness begins to emerge, Hamaguchi leaves the viewer wondering not only if evil exists, but perhaps if it can be justified. Winner of the Grand Jury Prize at Venice, Evil Does Not Exist is a film that will draw you in and leave you stunned, asking powerful questions with no easy answers.
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Evil Does Not Exist (Japanese: 悪は存在しない) — Japan. Dialog in Japanese. Directed by Ryûsuke Hamaguchi. Running time 105 min. First released September 4, 2023 (Venice). Starring Hitoshi Omika, Ryo Nishikawa, Ryuji Kosaka, Ayaka Shibutani, Hazuki Kikuchi.
This article is part of Cinema Escapist’s dedicated coverage of the 2023 Vancouver International Film Festival.