Ryûsuke Hamaguchi’s latest film, Evil Does Not Exist (Aku Wa Sonzai Shinai), is a strange and unpredictable work of art. Following his highly acclaimed international breakthrough, Drive My Car, Hamaguchi reins in the symphonic expansiveness of his previous film, opting for a more compact and slow-burn approach. However, despite its smaller scale, Evil Does Not Exist possesses its own hypnotic and changeable rhythms, accompanied by a quiet sense of dread that creeps up on the viewer just as the characters in the film seem to be moving towards common ground. The ambiguous and confounding ending may divide audiences, but there’s no denying the undeniable power of this haunting stealth thriller.
Based on a concept developed by Hamaguchi and composer Eiko Ishibashi, Evil Does Not Exist started as a silent film to be performed live with musical accompaniment. However, during the shoot, Hamaguchi was inspired by the interactions between people and nature, leading him to expand the idea into a full-length feature. Ishibashi’s mercurial score plays a significant role in setting the film’s mood and atmosphere.
Set in a small rural community outside Tokyo, the film showcases the lives of the locals, who lead modest existences and hold a deep respect for the surrounding natural world. For the first ten minutes, not a word is spoken, and the camera takes a long backwards stroll through the wintry woods, capturing the beauty of nature. This opening sequence is accompanied by Ishibashi’s melodic yet ominous score, setting the stage for what’s to come.
The story revolves around single father Takumi (Hitoshi Omika) and his 8-year-old daughter Hana (Ryo Nishikawa). Takumi and his friend Kazuo (Hiroyuki Miura) collect fresh spring water to deliver to the village noodle bar. This routine task seems insignificant until the arrival of the representatives from Playmode, a Tokyo company spearheading a development project. The meeting between the locals and the representatives becomes tense as concerns about the potential contamination of the water supply and the risk of wildfires are raised.
The film expertly captures the anxieties and tensions that arise during this meeting, without the use of music. The dialogue unfolds in real-time, reminiscent of the observational style found in Frederick Wiseman’s documentaries. The uneasiness and rippling tensions in the room evoke memories of Cristian Mungiu’s R.M.N. Although there’s subtle humor in the representatives’ attempts to smooth things over, the meeting ends on a tense note, leaving the audience on edge.
Hamaguchi shifts the perspective to Mayuzumi (Ayaka Shibutani) and Takahashi (Ryuji Kosaka), two representatives from Playmode who are sent back to the village after a frustrating Zoom meeting with their boss. As they spend more time in the village, they begin to appreciate the serenity and gentle pace of life. The villagers, including Takumi, open up to them, and a sense of community forms.
However, just as things seem to be settling into a rhythm, a crisis befalls the village, disrupting the delicate balance and setting off a chain of events that leads to a mind-boggling ending. The Venice Film Festival’s decision to screen the film the night before its public premiere proves to be a genius move, as the ending lingers in the minds of viewers, leaving them contemplating its possible interpretations long after the film ends.
The ensemble cast, including nonprofessional locals, delivers convincing performances, effectively portraying the tight-knit community. Shibutani and Kosaka shine in their roles as the hapless interlopers, as their initial detachment gives way to a deeper understanding of the villagers and their daily lives. Omika, not an actor but a crew member on Hamaguchi’s previous film, Wheel of Fortune and Fantasy, delivers a strong and grounded performance as the caring yet forgetful father, Takumi. His transformation in the final act is truly unsettling.
Yoshio Kitagawa’s camerawork captures the environment with a loose and fluid style that complements the film’s setting. Ishibashi’s ever-changing score, with its abrupt cutoffs, enhances Hamaguchi’s radical shifts in perspective and tone.
While Evil Does Not Exist lacks the emotional force of Drive My Car, it showcases Hamaguchi’s maturity as a filmmaker willing to take risks. The film offers a penetrating study of characters and their surroundings. Its unpredictable narrative and thought-provoking ending solidify Hamaguchi’s position as an enormously talented filmmaker. Evil Does Not Exist may confound and challenge its audience, but it undeniably holds viewers tight in its grip from start to finish.