EVIL DOES NOT EXIST: Silence Speaks Volumes in a Chilling Reflection on Human Nature

Ryusuke Hamaguchi’s follow-up to Drive My Car is a tense meditation on environmental devastation

Stills courtesy of Sideshow & Janus Films.

Takumi (Hitoshi Omika) is a woodcutter and local odd-jobs man who lives with his young daughter Hana (Ryo Nishikawa) in a village tucked away in the Japanese mountains. The villagers prize their seclusion and untouched natural resources–all of which become prime selling points for a Tokyo talent agency seeking to establish a tourist “glamping” site so they can take advantage of diminishing pandemic subsidies. When it’s clear just how much construction will pollute the village–and how ignorant the talent agency is to these effects–the tension between the villagers and these urban intruders threatens to reach a breaking point.

Originally conceived and shot as a dialogue-free short film, Ryusuke Hamaguchi’s follow-up to his Oscar-winning Drive My Car treasures the ambiguous space between words and action. Early on, these silences allow viewers to carefully immerse themselves in the echoing quiet of the mountainous countryside–until the blaring of villagers’ chainsaws shatters the illusion. In a tense first meeting between villagers and hapless company reps (Ryuji Kosaka and Ayaka Shibutani), the blunt honesty of the citizens’ questions resoundingly clashes with the reps’ polite yet bumbling half-truths. In moments of stillness, there’s the capacity for sudden outbursts of connection or violence. But that disturbing quiet–between a singular action and endless reactionary possibilities–is where Hamaguchi mines the complexity of this moving and beguiling film. It exemplifies humans’ endless choices regarding our lasting impact on the environment, and how each decision, no matter how small, leaves an impression that resounds far beyond it.

Much like his earlier films like Drive My Car and Wheel of Fortune and Fantasy, Hamaguchi eschews bombastic dramatic turns or brazen sentimentality in favor of giving his characters a stoic, meticulously-constructed reservation that can’t help but erode over time. In the context of Evil Does Not Exist, there isn’t an erosion of communication between urban corporate stooges and well-intentioned rural villagers; rather, Hamaguchi carefully fosters an inevitable, chaotic eruption that breaks through the fragile social niceties that bind them from just slaughtering one another. Neither capitalist nor conservationist seems capable of or interested in changing from their long-held natures–instead, Hamaguchi knows that Nature itself will force something to give. 

The exquisite cinematography by Yoshio Kitagawa and mournful score by Eiko Ishibashi finds its home nestled in between barren trees ready to bud and driven snow pockmarked with animal tracks or footsteps: an environment that, despite its desolation, is always changing, evolving, adapting. The only thing that can’t are the seemingly wholly evolved creatures that call it home. Instead, humans remain on a tenuous scale of awareness regarding how much they eat away at their environment. While the villagers have prized a “take what one needs” mentality in direct contrast to the city-dwellers who want to profit first and ask questions later, there’s no denying all of them make a registrable negative mark on their environment–defined by whatever they take for their survival.  While Takumi is methodical in his conservation, that act is still defined by its gradual yet present act of consumption. On the opposite side, these seemingly soulless corporate reps do have their human qualities. They want to feel fulfillment beyond their jobs, whether that’s living in nature or finding love on a dating app. While they recognize how much they take from the world, that instinct competes with their drive to give something of themselves elsewhere. Hamaguchi’s silences remove anything that might distract from the ways that humans are constantly consuming in this film–eating, smoking, shooting, chainsawing, what have you. There’s no room for delusion or self-rationalization, as reflected by the film’s wry title. Given such time and presence to reflect on this habitual self-destruction, there’s an earnest hope that such a break can give as an opportunity for our less-cancerous better angels to give back and adapt to Nature rather than force our environment’s contributions to be so perilously one-sided.

Some of Evil’s most beautiful moments exist in this moment of awareness–specifically in a moving scene where Takumi has the returning corporate reps help him gather water from the very spring their camp would pollute. While the end of the scene reveals one rep’s altruism to be wholly performative, Hamaguchi majorly focuses on how the other rep falls into a contemplative rhythm shared by woodsman Takumi. It’s a moment of respite from the brightly doleful unease Hamaguchi’s fostered until then, brimming with the hope of a possible new harmony between taker and giver. As mentioned, however, the moment is fleeting–as the recurring echoing gunshots break yet another silence full of potential. 

While I am curious to see Hamaguchi’s film in its more truncated form (a short entitled Gift), Evil Does Not Exist feels so deliberate in its pacing and rhythm that to take away from its meditative stillness seems to risk evading the point behind such lengths of silence. By shifting its focus away from our ability to speak and act, Evil Does Not Exist removes humanity from the center of its own narrative. It forces us to reflect on and reconsider our actions before we enact further change–and determine whether we can extend such labels of good and evil beyond our own self-interest.

Evil Does Not Exist is now playing in limited release from Sideshow and Janus Films.

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