Face the Music: Hamaguchi Ryusuke on “Evil Does Not Exist”

By Beatrice Loayza

Hamaguchi Ryusuke’s sublime eco-fable, Evil Does Not Exist, begins and ends with the plangent score by Ishibashi Eiko, played fortissimo over an extended tracking shot facing skywards. A forest canopy, stark and stripped of its foliage by winter’s spell, appears like latticework through which daylight passes with an eerie vibrancy. Riding this sonic wavelength, one is immediately locked into the film’s peculiar pitch, a mix of awe, fragility, and horror quite unlike the Japanese filmmaker’s previous work. Instead, this foreboding feature hews closer to the films of Hamaguchi’s former teacher and occasional collaborator Kurosawa Kiyoshi, whose films strike a similarly otherworldly balance of moody contemplation ambiguous dread (the woodlands mystery Charisma [2000] stands out as a clear parallel).

Evil Does Not Exist, which won the Grand Jury Prize at the 2023 Venice Film Festival, is an offshoot of a separate collaboration between Hamaguchi and Ishibashi, a multi-instrumentalist and composer whose first score for the director was for Drive My Car (2012). Gift, a silent film that Hamaguchi conceived to complement a live performance by Ishibashi, provided the raw materials for Evil Does Not Exist, in which the familiar trappings of a drama about ecological preservation and small-town existence threatened by corporate sprawl are enriched and expanded by Hamaguchi’s patient gaze. 

As the film begins, cinematographer Kitagawa Yoshio’s camera observes the routines of a stoical widower, Takumi (Omika Hitoshi), a handyman who chops wood and collects stream water to be used by a local udon shop. Often late to school pickup for his young daughter, he is accustomed to tracking her down in the woods she traverses on the way home—a route that is both uneasy in its chilly solitude, and magnificent in its freedom and arboreal splendour. It’s no place for a curious little girl, yet it’s irresistible, too. 

A pair of talent agency employees from the city arrive to lead a town-hall meeting about the construction of a “glamping” site, which the locals rightfully oppose. These urbanites (Kosaka Ryuji and Shibutani Ayako, the latter of whom you might recognize from Hamaguchi’s Happy Hour [2015]) are, essentially, corporate puppets, deeply ignorant about the various ecosystems they intend to disrupt. Yet through them, Hamaguchi identifies the thresholds for understanding and change. These fraught (though, in Hamaguchi’s hands, not entirely pessimistic) human dynamics unfold against a snowy backdrop radiating the chill of nature’s grand indifference. 

Cinema Scope: After Drive My Car and what I’m sure must have been an extremely exhausting awards tour, I was impressed to discover that you’d made a film—two films—so soon after. 

Hamaguchi Ryusuke: I took about a half-year break. After all the awards, I didn’t feel like doing anything. But toward the end of 2021, Ishibashi Eiko asked me if I wanted to create some sort of visual component for her live performance, and I agreed. 

Scope: And that’s the short film Gift?

Hamaguchi: For some reason it’s being called a short, but Eiko actually asked me to make something relatively long, 75 to 90 minutes, which I found interesting. I accepted the project, but I had no idea how I’d make something for a live performance. My starting point was the fact that I wouldn’t have to create any sound, since the performance was already doing that. That’s not to say I was thinking about it as a silent film. Then I realized Eiko was giving me the freedom to do whatever I wanted. With that knowledge, I decided I didn’t know how to make anything other than the way I’ve always been making things. So, first I had to write a script. Using that, I could determine what kind of footage I could create. It was a very long-winded process. 

Scope: I read that you asked Eiko permission to make a second project out of the live performance film. What triggered you to want to expand upon the original? 

Hamaguchi: I wasn’t really trying to make it much bigger than the first project. In writing the script, I was creating material that would be used for the performance, but that ultimately would be far more than what I needed for the final product. So the script from the beginning was a little less than two hours long. When we began shooting, I had to tell my actors that we wouldn’t be using their voices in the final piece, but then as the process continued, I began familiarizing myself with their voices. I thought their voices were marvelous, and that people needed to hear them. Because Eiko’s project was the origin, I asked her permission to make a different film, which she thought was a great idea. After that, Eiko introduced me to some of her local friends, and with that I began researching and building out the story. 

Scope: So the story was inspired by Eiko’s community? Most of your films take place in urban settings, so the shift to a remote, rural location felt unique. What is the town called, Mizubiki?

Hamaguchi: Mizubiki is actually a fictional village based on multiple towns that I went to when I was doing research. I keep repeating myself, but I really had no idea what I was doing or what I could do for this project, so I needed to limit myself in some way—to create parameters so that I could actually start creating from some ground level. So first, I went to go see where Eiko makes her music. I went to her studio and filmed some of her music sessions. That’s when I realized she works in this environment that’s very remote and surrounded by wilderness. Looking back at the footage of her music sessions that I shot, I started to think about her in relation to the landscape she was part of, and how natural settings in and of themselves have particular qualities. There’s a constant sense of movement, a spirit of change that’s very subtle. I felt that matched with Eiko’s music. 

Scope: What was the name of the actual place where you were shooting?

Hamaguchi: I was researching around the prefectures of Yamanashi and Nagano, specifically the border region between these two areas. It’s about a two- or three-hour drive from Tokyo. Often there are people there who pass through from the big city—people who have country houses. There’s a lot of tourism, too.

Scope: Can you talk a little bit more about the nature of your research and the ecological bent of the film? Was the tension we see in the film, between commercial encroachment and the local economy, based on a real event? 

Hamaguchi: When I decided I wanted the film to be about the natural environment, I asked myself, “How do I organically build out themes about nature?” I began talking to locals, who shared their knowledge about the area. They showed me where the spring water came from, and they told me there are bakeries nearby that use the water to make bread. So I began to see the specific ways in which nature flows through the community. 

As I live in the city, I felt a big distance between myself and what I was witnessing. At the same time, I was fascinated by the way the locals worked and thought about their work. There was a strange disconnect between my own body and what I was learning. Then I learned about this town-hall meeting that actually happened—one that’s very similar to the meeting that happens in my film. These outsiders came in with very sloppy plans, and the town residents trashed on them. As an urbanite, I felt that people like myself really do come to rural areas with these sorts of undeveloped positions—in fact, my perspective is very similar in a way. 

Scope: The community-meeting scene is terrific. Your films often make long conversations between multiple people feel so natural yet thrilling, but I wonder what you had in mind when approaching this particular scene. 

Hamaguchi: In terms of how the scene was shot, it’s a lot like what I’ve done in the past, yes, in that there’s a lot of dialogue, each shot is held for a long time, and I’m shooting with multiple cameras. We shot through the entire scene multiple times, too. Because it was like a lot of what I’ve done before, we actually shot this scene very early in production. This particular scene was what made me realize that I wanted to turn the original project into another film. Because I didn’t have a great familiarity with this kind of conflict, the words I used in the dialogue were sometimes words that the locals I talked to used. 

Scope: Like “glamping?” 

Hamaguchi: I knew about glamping beforehand. And it’s not that I have an animosity toward the glamping industry, but I think something about the activity is about extraction and prioritizing what’s convenient for urban people; they’re shaving off what’s inconvenient about nature. Yet camping is supposed to be about inhabiting nature, the good and the bad and all the difficulties that come with living outside of civilization. 

Scope: I’m not sure how it plays for a Japanese audience, but in the US the idea of glamping is somewhat humorous—something that people might be mocked for. 

Hamaguchi: I agree. It’s very absurd and illogical. I wasn’t necessarily trying to induce laughter when I was writing the parts with the company employees, Takahashi and Mayazumi, but I was certainly laughing in my head whenever I thought about the folly of their project. 

Scope: I read that Omika Hitoshi, who plays Takumi the handyman, is not a professional actor, though he has a small role in Wheel of Fortune and Fantasy (2021). I know that you have a particular method when it comes to preparing your actors that involves a lot of rehearsal, so I wonder if your approach was different with Hitoshi?

Hamaguchi: Omika Hitoshi was part of the crew for Wheel of Fortune and Fantasy. There’s a Japanese term, uchitora, for the idea of when a crew member appears in the same film. That’s sort of what we were doing, knowing he was just a regular crew person with no acting experience. When I was going around doing research for Evil Does Not Exist,Hitoshi was the driver for me and Kitagawa Yoshio, the cinematographer. So as we were driving around, I had Hitoshi do the stand-ins. That’s when I realized he has a great face, and shortly after I asked him to play the role.

Regarding the preparation work I do with the actors, when I have them read without any emotions—that was something I started with Happy Hour,which featured predominantly non-actors. I knew that by prepping them this way, they’d be able to stand in front of the camera with confidence. I myself had confidence in this method, which I think gave Hitoshi the strength to believe he could do it well, too. I wasn’t that worried about his ability to perform. Ultimately, I think anyone has the ability to learn lines. If they can learn the lines, they can speak them, and if they can speak them, then they can be worked into something interesting. 

Scope: The speech in your films can be very Bressonian, in that the delivery can sometimes seem flat but it’s actually much more complicated and nuanced if you pay attention and listen to the details in the delivery. The contrast between the company employees and Takumi is pretty stark, and it particularly comes out in how they speak, with Takumi coming off as very serious and direct.

Hamaguchi: Omika himself is not like his character. He’s reserved, but in a softer way, and as such he’s more malleable. When I was having him do the stand-ins, he wasn’t acting and I wasn’t asking him to perform: he just stood there, sort of out of focus, with no expression on his face. In simply watching him do that, I found that his mere existence conveyed a lot of meaning. There was almost an animal-ness to him. Simply by looking at his face, it makes people wonder, “What is he thinking?” 

Scope: Please correct me if I’m wrong, but I don’t think you’ve had a child perform such a prominent role in any of your previous films. 

Hamaguchi: In my early twenties, I made a very low-budget independent film in which I had a child play a rather important role. But since then, it’s true, I haven’t.

Scope: What was it like directing the little girl in Evil Does Not Exist? How did you approach that performance relative to the adult members of your cast? 

Hamaguchi: Generally speaking, I’m hesitant about children. Whenever I visit friends or family members and their children are there, I’m always wondering how best to go about interacting with them. The actress in my film didn’t have much experience, but I also didn’t think I needed to upend my usual approach. Once she started memorizing and speaking her dialogue, I sort of allowed her the freedom to just do whatever she wanted to do. By doing that, I realized that in certain ways Japanese adults are really bound by certain standards of speech and conduct, while children are able to bring an authenticity that adults feel restricted from exhibiting. That made me realize, maybe I should continue to work with kids…

Scope: I want to go back to something you said earlier, about feeling the distance between yourself and the rural community you had entered to make the film, and how that awareness ultimately informed the shape of the film. Did you, like one of the company employees in the film, chop wood for the first time?

Hamaguchi: When I was researching and still didn’t have a firm story, I stayed in the area for two or three days—and, yes, I chopped wood for the first time, and also helped with other physical tasks. It was a memorable experience. When you see Takahashi chopping wood and talking about how great it feels, in a sense that reflects my own experience. There’s a certain beauty to that kind of labour. But what I was really drawn to about the act of chopping wood is that there’s always the possibility of failure. That’s what I wanted to be able to capture, this nervous tension implicit in the action. Omika became unbelievably good at chopping wood, which allowed us to shoot that one long take. 

Scope: Did you collect water from a stream, too?

Hamaguchi: Yes. One full tank of water is ten kilograms. I remember that heaviness well. I mentioned earlier that there’s a bakery in real life that uses water from a local stream; I translated that as the noodle shop that uses the water for the broth. I was very moved by the experience of drinking that spring water. At the same time, I was very conscious of myself as an urban person simply coming in and enjoying nature in this blissful way, which I hope the film conveyed. 

bl@cinema-scope.com Loayza Beatrice