A Japanese Master Returns With Another Cinematic Triumph

Although its title sounds fit for a horror movie, Evil Does Not Exist (which hits theaters May 3) is far from a conventionally scary affair—which isn’t to say that, beneath its placid surface, it doesn’t thrum with unnerving tension.

Maintaining the slow, deliberate pace and studied formal devices (if not the lengthy runtime) of his Oscar-nominated 2021 gem Drive My Car, Japanese auteur Ryusuke Hamaguchi’s latest generates simmering anxiety from the clash between modernity and nature. Its tranquil poeticism infused with dissonant undercurrents that grow increasingly pronounced and disturbing as it ambles along its woodland path, it’s a masterful film that invites contemplation and, in return, delivers lyrical beauty, haunting mystery, and more than a bit of unexpected terror.

In the small rural enclave of Mizubiki, widower Takumi (Hitoshi Omika) works as a “jack of all trades” for his community. Introduced chainsawing and chopping firewood with quiet, methodical focus, Takumi lives in a cabin with his 8-year-old daughter Hana (Ryo Nishikawa), who attends a nearby daycare center.

Because her father is forgetful and frequently doesn’t arrive in time to pick her up, Hana often walks home alone through the deep, dense forest, whose ground is covered in snow and whose towering trees partially blot out the sky. Evil Does Not Exist begins by gazing up at those semi-barren peaks with musical accompaniment from Eiko Ishibashi, whose score was the original inspiration for the film, and the effect is as entrancing as Hamaguchi’s sudden cut away from his overture is jarring.

Evil Does Not Exist is in no hurry, and much of its initial action is of an uneventful sort. In the woods, Takumi ladles spring water into a collection of translucent jugs with the assistance of his friend Kazuo (Hiroyuki Miura), the two working in an unhurried manner that suggests they’ve done this before. On one of their many trips hauling their containers to the car, they notice wild wasabi and collect it for a dinner they’ll share later that night at a meeting of town leaders. Once at their vehicles, a gunshot in the distance rings out, briefly halting them in their tracks, and though they quickly chalk it up to hunters in a far-off region, it resounds as a Chekhov’s gun-style warning about eventual tragedy.

Foreshadowing is performed as gently as everything else in Evil Does Not Exist, which further hints at its climax when Takumi finds Hana in the forest and points out a tree that features bite marks from a deer. Later that evening, Takumi and Hana host Kazuo as well as the village chief (Taijirô Tamura) and an udon noodle restaurateur (Hazuki Kikuchi), who sit around his table and discuss an upcoming get-together with representatives from a metropolitan talent agency. This Tokyo outfit has designs to open a glamping site in Mizubiki’s woods, and it’s sent Takahashi (Ryuji Kosaka) and Mayuzumi (Ayaka Shibutani) to help sell the citizens on the mutual benefits of such an arrangement.

When that briefing takes place, however, it doesn’t go as Takahashi and Mayuzumi planned, with one local after another pointing out the deficiencies in their proposal, from a septic tank site that will result in pollution running downstream and spoiling their groundwater supply, to a lack of supervision that may elevate wildfire risks for the area. To Mizubiki’s residents, there could be no greater affront to nature and their way of life.

Despite the leisurely rhythm of that hearing and its back-and-forths (which recall scenes in Radu Jude’s Bad Luck Banging or Loony Porn and Cristian Mungiu’s R.M.N), hostility runs high. Thus, it’s a chuckle-worthy relief when one disgusted attendee leaps forward as if ready to attack Takahashi and Mayuzumi, only to be held back by Takumi. Upon reporting their findings, the agents are told by their boss—a callous jerk who’s Skyping in from his car, and unwilling to visit the town himself—that they should press onward because they need to maximize profits (including by taking advantage of COVID relief subsidies).

His sole constructive suggestion is that they offer the 24-hour caretaker position to Takumi, thereby necessitating a return trip to Mizubiki. On their drive, Takahashi and Mayuzumi discuss their disillusionment with their assignment and, more generally, with their job, all as Mayuzumi ribs Takahashi for using a dating app, which he justifies by explaining that he dreams of marrying.

A still from the flim Evil Does Not Exist

As with Hamaguchi’s prior film, Evil Does Not Exist is composed of long, unbroken takes in which the camera pans alongside characters (as if assuming an unseen person’s POV) and peers out of cars’ front and rear windshields as male and female passengers (who work in show business) chat about this and that. For extended stretches, the proceedings are awash in the chirping of birds, the crunch of footsteps, and the measured and/or labored breathing of men and women. Consequently, the writer/director creates subtle unease from his habit of abruptly switching visual and sonic gears. Those shifts additionally amplify the impression of disparate forces—nature and technology; man and animal; young and old; the contemporary and the eternal—at war with each other.

In the face of such conflicts, violence feels inevitable, and yet Evil Does Not Exist is so moderate that its ultimate bursts of brutality still manage to startle. In the lead-up to its conclusion, Takahashi decides that perhaps he’d prefer a life that resembles Takumi’s harmonious existence, and that decision takes on an added, destructive dimension once Takumi realizes that he’s again forgotten to get Hana from daycare and, to his dismay, discovers that she’s nowhere to be found.

It’s only at this point that the story picks up a more overt sense of urgency and peril. Nonetheless, the filmmaker’s control of his chosen tone and tempo never wavers, and his adherence to taking one calculated step at a time means that the material—its music growing discordant as the search for Hana turns desperate—becomes pent-up, coiled, and ready to explode at a moment’s notice.

When that release finally arrives, it’s neither cathartic nor unambiguous; instead, Hamaguchi conjures a mesmerizing vision of the brutality that comes from cornering species in their native habitat. If evil doesn’t exist in this world, it’s simply because, in the end, there’s no morality to survival.

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