Johnny Depp Plays Photographer W. Eugene Smith in ‘Minamata’

Johnny Depp drama “Minamata” – chronicling W. Eugene Smith’s last photo essay on the horrific mercury poisoning in Minamata, Japan.For decades, Japan’s Chisso Corporation dumped methylmercury and other heavy metals into wastewater that exited into Minamata Bay, a by-product of their chemical manufacturing. The highly toxic compound was absorbed by sea life, and subsequently eaten by locals, which led to horrific birth defects. After years of tireless work by Japanese activists, the government finally acknowledged the cause of the problem in 1968.In 1971, famed photojournalist W. Eugene Smith traveled to Japan with his second wife Aileen Mioko Smith at the behest of one of the activists. Before heading south to Minamata, Smith was walking around Tokyo when a recent college graduate recognized him from his textbooks. The serendipitous meeting led to Smith hiring Takeshi Ishikawa  as an assistant.Although Smith had only intended on staying for three months, he, Aileen, and Takeshi ended up staying in Minamata for three years to produce Smith’s last photo essay prior to his death in 1978.

Courtesy of Larry Horricks/HanWay Films

Of the thousands of images that Smith produced during that time, the most stirring was a portrait entitled Tomoko Eumura in Her Bath  – an image of a Ryoko Uemura cradling her deformed daughter, Tomoko, in a traditional ofuro, or Japanese soaking tub. Jim Hughes, Smith’s biographer, revealed in a Digital Photojournalist essay that Ryoko had suggested the image to Smith and invited him into the bathing area.The image, part of a Life magazine photo essay entitled “Death-Flow from a Pipe”, put a global spotlight on the Chisso Corp and Minamata disease. The image in many ways transcended the mother and daughter and became an iconic presentation of the ill-effects of environmental pollution. 

Courtesy of Larry Horricks/HanWay Films

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