Release date: 1 June 2012
Distributor: Third Window Films
Director: Sion Sono, Japan
Writer: Sion Sono
Based on the manga by: Minoru Furuya
Cast: Shôta Sometani, Fumi Nikaidô, Tetsu Watanabe
Directed by Sion Sono, who brought us Suicide Club (2001), and more recently Cold Fish (2010), Himizu is an urgent and topical film. Located in the midst of the devastation in the aftermath of the tsunami of 2011, the film shows a society that is not only physically destroyed but also socially falling to pieces. Fifteen-year-old Yuichi Sumida (Shôta Sometani) lives with his neglectful mother in a boat hire shop. His drunken father only lurches into view when he needs cash and curses Sumida, wishing him dead and reminding him about the time he saved Sumida from drowning, an act he bitterly regrets on account of the insurance he could have claimed. Sumida is also the object of a school girl crush on the part of the hyper Keiko (Fumi Nikaidô) – ‘Am I a stalker? Yes, I am’ – to whom he is (at best) indifferent. The boat house is also a gathering place for a disparate bunch of refugees who serve as a Greek chorus and attempt to help Sumida in his troubles even as he hopelessly pursues his wish to lead an ordinary, normal and boring life.
Tragedy overtakes him, however, and with his chances of normality gone forever, he teeters on the edge of madness, haunted by recurring dreams of apocalypse. Threatened also by the yakuza, who are pursuing his father’s gambling debts, Sumida considers suicide but wants to do something genuinely good that will redeem him before he dies.
Sono’s film is a deeply unsettling view of modern day Japan. It is a society in which the adults have an antagonistic, if not downright hostile, relationship to their offspring. Sumida’s parents are blandly negligent on one side and furiously hateful on the other, but this isn’t simply an isolated case. Keiko interrupts her mother and father, who are in the process of building her a gallows. ‘You’ll use it when we’ve finished,’ they tell her. School is an irrelevance that spouts new age platitudes about hope and individuality while having no real impact on the lives of the pupils. The only sympathetic adults in the piece are the refugees, but they themselves have had their lives reduced to vagabondage that in its precarious vulnerability is not that far from childhood.
Although originally based on a manga by Minoru Furuya, the script was changed at the last minute by Sono to incorporate the tsunami and the subsequent nuclear drama that was played out. Sono took his crew to one of the most devastated areas for some of the scenes. The film was premiered at the Venice Film Festival in September 2011, a mere six months after the tsunami had hit Japan. It treats the aftermath in a tangential manner, alluding rather than depicting. But the whole film is imbued with an out-of-joint surreality, a topsy-turvy universe in which the generations are pitched against each other. There is no sign of authority and every now and then an ominous growling roar is heard as if there is another earthquake on its way, waiting to happen on the margins of the frame. This is a much more serious film than the dark comedy of Cold Fish. Despite the freakishness of the plot, there is a mournful tone that the use of Mozart and Samuel Barber reinforces. This is a satirical and in some ways despairingly angry film. In its privileging of the point of view of the young, Himizu is reminiscent of The Tin Drum (Volker Schlöndorff, 1979). Hope, if it is to come at all, will be brought out by the young kids who play out their relationship in the worst possible conditions and yet have an independence and resilience that will allow them in some way to survive.
John Bleasdale talked to Sion Sono at the Venice Film Festival in September 2011 and asked him about adapting a manga, incorporating the tsunami in the film, and softening his trademark violence.
John Bleasdale: When did you decide to adapt Minoru Furuya’s manga?
Sion Sono: It was before the earthquake: what we refer to as 3/11. Actually, I had already completed the screenplay when 3/11 happened, but I had to adapt the script after 3/11. The original screenplay was very faithful to the manga, but I could not ignore what had happened and continue to make the film.
The film is very different from the manga, especially the ending.
The manga was published 10 years ago, when Japan was a little more peaceful, and a little milder compared to now. Minoru Furuya wrote about a life of boredom and peace and the endless continuum of those days, but after 3/11 we were in a situation where we were living the unordinary, and the unordinary became our daily lives. The unending unordinariness is what we’re living now. The time has completely flipped. The manga is more depressing, because it was written in a more peaceful time. Now we’re not living in a peaceful time; we’re not secure enough to show these depressing things. That’s why it changed.
How did Furuya react to the changes?
He is very jealous, and he said, ‘I’m not going to read the screenplay because if I do, I’m probably going to give lots of notes, but as long as I don’t read the script I won’t feel I have to make any suggestions. So I’m just going to wait until you finish the film and then watch it.’
During the production was there any difficulty shooting the film?
The schedule for the principle photography didn’t change that much, as it was a low-budget film, and my crew wasn’t too open to incorporating the events of 3/11 into the film. But it was what I wanted to do, and so I very hurriedly rewrote the script because we already had a date to begin shooting.
In the film the protagonist seems to become a comic-book superhero, a masked vigilante, but that seems to be a parody almost, an idea that fails him.
[SPOILER] Looking back I agree, but he was in no way trying to be heroic. By committing parricide, he actually wants to kill himself, but in the time that he’s deliberating, he decides he wants to commit one good act for society, for mankind, before taking his own life. And he felt that to find and kill somebody who is obviously evil would help others.[END OF SPOILER] So it’s not like he’s a Kick-Ass type of character – he’s not a geek, he doesn’t read superhero comics – it’s not as if he’s emulating those heroes.
Like the anti Kick-Ass?
Maybe not even that, because he doesn’t have the reference.
Can I ask about the use of music? What influenced you in choosing Mozart’s Requiem and Samuel Barber?
When I was in editing, there was a melody that would haunt me. I wanted to be faithful to that, and I thought Mozart’s Requiem would be too easy a choice, but it’s just the best. It’s not about it being a requiem – that’s not the significance. It’s more about the melody. And I had seen a couple of films where there is a main theme that is repeated with variations, and I found that effective, so I always wanted to try that with the Requiem.
Were the ruins used in the beginning and closing of the film real?
I did actually go on location to a place that was hit by the tsunami, but I didn’t shoot the location like a documentary at all because Himizu is a feature film, a drama. I wanted to film the place in an un-documentary way, which is to say we had a different way of shooting. We had a very long tracking shot that showed the rubble, which is something a documentary film wouldn’t do – it will give you an idea of how vast that landscape is. It is very dramatic, as nothing in particular is going on, but it just shows you the scope of the devastation.
How did the actors react to being in a ruined place?
We actually shot the scenes very quickly, right before the light failed, so maybe three hours, four hours tops, and within that time frame I didn’t want to make it a big production, so we just had the actors and the cameraman. It was beyond a director directing it. The actors hadn’t been there before, they hadn’t seen the place where the tsunami hit, and so I was just filming their raw reaction.
What is the film’s relationship with violence? Is it an aesthetic choice?
In just this film?
In all your films.
I haven’t really compared them to others, and I can’t really talk in relation to other people, but it is quite normal for me. Say you have a Francis Bacon painting, and you go to Francis and you say: ‘Francis, you have very violent, grotesque expressions – why is that?’ He’ll probably just say, ‘that’s the way I draw, that’s the way I paint’. It’s like a tick. Like a tendency, or habit. It’s not that it has come out of a place of intent, it’s not planned in a conscious way. Like you see the sky, and some people will see it red. They don’t see the blue in the sky, and you might say where’s the red. I don’t see that.
There is much less violence in Himizu than in your previous work. The film is softer.
Yes, you are absolutely right. I think I was more restrained in my expressions of violence, but it’s funny because people keep asking about the violence in the film. I feel that it is much tamer than my previous films. Violence isn’t a theme of the film, and there are so many violent films, so why do mine stand out? I didn’t want to show the murder too graphically, because it is such a sad scene. I didn’t want to emphasize it.
There is poetry in the film. Do you still write poetry?
Before I started making films, I wrote poems. One day I realised that I had started making films instead of poems, and now I don’t write films any more, but all the impulses and passion I put into poetry, I now put into my cinema. It’s like making films is like writing a book of poetry.
The adolescent point of view is very isolated. The parents and the schools are not there, and the kids have to do it themselves. Were you influenced by any films told from the child’s point of view, for instance The Tin Drum?
The Tin Drum is one of my favourite films, but this was an adaptation of a manga. Within it, there was the character of a policeman who showed understanding for the boy. I didn’t put him in the film, because I wanted the boy and the girl to be (as you said) isolated. I wanted them to work things out, to drive the story; the world’s most isolated and alienated characters.
On TV we see that everything is in order now in Japan, but in the film there is chaos.
Journalism, I think, may not reflect the truth, so maybe it shows only a part of what the youth in Japan are going through now. Some journalists will say that the smiles are returning to the faces in Fukushima, but actually I went back a week ago to where we shot, and I didn’t see anyone smiling. Everyone is living in misery, and you can see the disparity between what is being reported and what is happening. In this sense my film is truer than the journalism.
Throughout the film we hear the sound of the earthquake, giving us the feeling that the earthquake is about to happen again. Could that be a social earthquake?
Yes. Absolutely, the apprehension of not knowing what is going to happen at any time. Ambiguous worries about what will happen in the future. To visually or cinematically convey that sense, I used that sound.
The community act as a second audience in the film. They seem to be the only community that works…
Yes, those characters had suffered so much. They had hit rock bottom and so they are able to bond. I went to the area that was hit most by the tsunami, and there were many bonds that were created as families lost members.
Is this an optimistic film?
I am going to make a film about Fukushima next, which is going to be much more about dealing with reality. This film in a way doesn’t feature radiation leakage issues that much, because if I delved into that, it would be too much. But with my next film I’ll deal with it. Talking to people, interviewing people, investigating – that is not optimistic or hopeful at all. The process itself… I am doing it so that I will find hope, but it isn’t optimistic now. To cover your ears isn’t good. You have to have the clarity and everything out in the open in order to find hope.