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Ryusuke Hamaguchi Embraces the Unknowable With Oscars Follow-Up ‘Evil Does Not Exist’

Japanese auteur Ryusuke Hamaguchi is not slowing down. In 2021, the 45-year-old director released two features of stunning quality, the anthology drama Wheel of Fortune and Fantasy (which won a Silver Bear at the Berlin Film Festival) and Drive My Car, a surprise awards season sensation, which eventually gave Japan its first Oscar win in 20 years. At the 2023 Venice Film Festival, Hamaguchi is back with yet another feature displaying a fully realized, deeply sophisticated aesthetic.

Evil Does Not Exist was initiated by Drive My Car‘s composer Eiko Ishibashi, who invited Hamaguchi in late 2021 to create some video images to accompany a live musical piece she was writing. While researching that project in the rural Japanese village where Ishibashi is from, Hamaguchi became inspired to shoot a highly formalist feature film in tandem with the video piece. By January, he had a script and filming took place over February and March. Ishibashi’s compositions feature in the finished film, Evil Does Not Exist, while some footage shot during the filmmaking will also accompany her orchestral piece, which will premiere at Belgium’s Film Fest Ghent in October.

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Evil Does Not Exist centers on a Japanese single father named Takumi and his daughter Hana, who live in Mizubiki Village, not far from Tokyo. Like generations before them, they live a modest life according to the seasons and order of nature. But one day, the village inhabitants become aware of a plan to build a glamping site near Takumi’s house, offering city residents a comfortable “escape” to nature. When two company representatives from Tokyo arrive in the village to hold a meeting, it becomes clear that the project will have a negative impact on the local water supply, causing unrest. The agency’s mismatched intentions endanger both the ecological balance of the nature plateau and their way of life, with an aftermath that rattles Takumi’s life.

The Hollywood Reporter connected with Hamaguchi during the Venice Film Festival for a brief chat about the intentions behind Evil Does Not Exist — as well as the meaning behind its beguiling title.

I enjoyed this film a lot, but I’m not sure where to even begin when it comes to interpreting it. Are there any hints you can offer the audience in Venice? 

Perhaps this is very selfish of me to say, but I think the best way to understand this film is that it’s like listening to music. I guess you could say that there are too many meanings and thoughts behind the film for this idea to work. But ultimately, it’s really about the characters being able to move within nature. It’s more enjoyable to actually just witness the movements of the characters. It’s a film that doesn’t give a clear conclusion. I’m not trying to make this somebody else’s fault, but I think this is the result of me being influenced by Aiko Ishibashi’s music.

It’s exciting to hear you say that the film came about via a collaboration over music, because I found myself so compelled by the way music is used throughout the film. It reminded me of some of Jean-Luc Godard’s films.

I’m a little bit embarrassed that you’re mentioning this because Godard sort of was the common language that Aiko and I had while making this project together. We both had several names that we would bring up when it came to film music that we liked, and Godard was definitely one of the names we had in common. His filmmaking in itself feels like a sonic experience to me. I feel that it’s music in some ways. So, for this film, I think we were greatly influenced by his work. But I think this also has to do with the nature of Aiko’s music. I knew that I didn’t want to use the music in a very emotional way. She made his incredibly beautiful theme song but I didn’t want to just use it for an emotional climax. I wanted there to be sort of a shift away from the climax and for the music, too. And I figured by making it not match up so well I’d be able to heighten the sharpness that exists in both the music and the film.

The way the camera moves seemed most of all to be about creating a sense of place in this rural community and within nature. There are tracking shots attached to a car’s movements and we get a perspective shot from the point of view of a wild wasabi plant.

I’ll say first of all that I was really having fun with it — with the way the camera was used. In some ways, I was trying to break away from the camera movements I had used in my prior filmmaking. What I mean by that is that the camera exists within the film — the way the camera is looking at the characters. This felt very comfortable to me, because I felt that the camera’s existence became more apparent.

With your last two films, Wheel of Fortune and Fantasy and Drive My Car, your primary interest seemed to be the nature of rehearsal and dramatic performance, whereas this film feels more about exploring the formal qualities of filmmaking. Is it fair? 

I think that’s true to an extent. It connects with our discussion about the camera movement. Of course, the human beings are very important to me. But I didn’t want to just capture the humans that are present in the story. But I also wanted to capture the humans within their environments and have the camera really capture how they react to each other. So in some sense, I guess this is an exercise. But I do think that the kind of filmmaking I did here will be important for me for the next decade of my moviemaking.

My first reaction to the announcement of this film was, “Wow, what a cool title.” What does “Evil Does Not Exist” mean and how does it relate to the film? 

Simply put, while I was doing field research for the script, these words just came out of me as I was looking at the natural landscape and thinking about nature. I think that’s something other people can probably relate to — when you look out at nature, this idea that evil does not exist. But that doesn’t mean that this is the message of the film in its entirety at all. If people ask me whether this is something that I actually think to be true, the answer is no, I don’t think so at all. But I think it is significant that I just never felt like changing the title even after I was done with the film. Again, the best way to sort of interpret this is that it’s like a title to a piece of music. You know, titles to music pieces don’t necessarily have a correlation or a connection with whatever meaning is there in the music. That’s the feeling I want people to take away with them.

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