Evil Does Not Exist Review | Into the Woods

by Andrew Parker

Despite boasting a cheeky title that subtly refutes its own premise, award winning Japanese filmmaker Ryusuke Hamaguchi’s latest film, Evil Does Not Exist, has a poignantly sinister side to it that few artists could pull off with the same amount of conviction and grace. A slowly unfolding look at the power of community and the destructive forces of capitalism and privileged conveniences, Evil Does Not Exist takes time and care to show the natural world and human heart as things people won’t truly appreciate until they’ve been eviscerated by outside forces that have no care for such things. It’s a beautiful, wrenching, and intelligent film from a still blossoming director who has already made three works that will go down as unassailable, all time classics.

Single father Takumi (Hitoshi Omika) and his eight year old daughter, Hana (Ryo Nishikawa), live a simple life in the woods of Mizubiki, a community of about 6,000 residents located not too far from the hustle and bustle of Tokyo. A self-described jack-of-all-trades, the well liked and respected Takumi does odd jobs to get by, chopping wood and gathering spring water for the local noodle shop. The community’s easy going, environmentally sustainable image, however, is in danger of fading away, when a talent agency flush with post-pandemic government subsidy funding blasts into town with the intent of building a posh glamping area for wealthy big city elites and influencers. Community members push back when they realize just how damaging these plans will be to their way of life, but the glamping site is pretty much a done deal, regardless of what they say. It then becomes the goal of the already stressed out and put upon project managers (Ryuji Kosaka, Ayaka Shibutani) to try and sway Takumi into making his fellow citizens see some value in the project.

In Evil Does Not Exist, Hamaguchi (Drive My Car, Wheel of Fortune and Fantasy) utilizes his gorgeous observational skills to create a wealth of emotion before the story’s more dramatic and political elements kick into high gear. Through observing Takumi going about his daily life and the impact his contributions have on those around him – even people of differing personalities and tempers – Hamaguchi is able to create a sense of stakes. Hamaguchi makes the viewer understand the impact that the land and these people have on one another, inviting the viewer into an intimate space before showing the impending threats. It’s a brilliant gambit of slow burning cinema that makes the viewer a part of the community rather than an outside observer. Whether these observations are wordless, chock full of exposition, or simply people talking about everyday facts of life, Hamaguchi is able to convey a wealth of information and emotional input in the subtlest ways possible.

Evil Does Not Exist makes the audience into eventual members in a pivotal town meeting between the ill prepared hired guns from the talent agency and well informed citizens asking pointed, reasonable questions for which the developers have no satisfying or coherent answers. Without the lengthy set-up or if this pivotal moment were placed at the beginning of it the film, such a sequence wouldn’t have the same impact. And that speaks to one of the things Hamaguchi has proven to excel at: making seemingly mundane interactions and moments of procedure speak volumes to the human experiences. Hamaguchi is a filmmaker that wants the audience’s constant engagement; always finding a way to the heart through the brain. Evil Does Not Exist is as observant and humane as Ozu and as politically charged as Ken Loach.

Hamaguchi takes a lot of pointed shots as corporate irresponsibility and rampant financial speculation, but he’s also careful to show much of what unfolds from the perspective of a couple of office workers who are keenly aware they’re in over their heads. The relationship between Kosaka and Shibutani is just as rich and intriguing to think about as the one between Omika and Nishikawa. Almost everyone in Evil Does Not Exist is a two dimensional character simply made to elicit sympathy or disgust (save for the two characters that are obviously meant to be dubious, bad corporate actors), and the experience of watching this clash of cultures rubbing off on each other is all the richer for that added amount of depth and nuance. Evil Does Not Exist admires the natural world and wishes that everyone who is just trying to get through another stressful day is able to find some enjoyment within it.

It’s also a brilliant look at the nature of community, and the differences between a place one would want to visit to forget their troubles and a hometown where people feel comfortable putting down roots. In a true community, the people who live there don’t need to be sold on why they like being there because the evidence is all around them and constant. In a tourism economy, those cultural and natural interactions are all the more fleeting; treated as some sort of fantastical distraction from the everyday grind. By putting people into this community simply to take advantage of relaxing vibes and taking even more via their impact on the land itself, this creates a new kind of grind for the everyday residents and stewards of this place, potentially breeding resentment and leading to even more conflict. The plan to bring the glamping site to Mizubiki is clearly thoughtless, and Hamaguchi delicately illustrates his point without resorting to didacticism.

As such, Evil Does Not Exist has no easy answers about where the world sees itself today and what will be lost as certain ways of life slowly begin to disappear. The tone of Evil Does Not Exist grows gradually haunting and confrontational as it goes along, but it’s a testament to Hamaguchi’s talents as a storyteller and director that this transition is natural and not like a sudden shift or foreshadowed conclusion. It’s a film that will make the viewer closely consider what they hold true in their own lives after it’s over, in much the same way as Hamaguchi’s Oscar nominated Drive My Car did a couple of years ago. Much like Takumi, Hamaguchi is a worker that feels like part of a rare, potentially dying breed of artist that wants to move, engage, and carry on a dialogue with the viewer minutes, hours, days, and years after the credits have rolled.

Evil Does Not Exist opens at TIFF Lightbox in Toronto, Vancity in Vancouver, Dave Barber Cinematheque in Winnipeg, and in several other cities on Friday, May 10, 2024. It opens at several Montreal area cinemas on May 17, and at the Metro Cinema in Edmonton on May 20.

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