Young girl cups hand over eyes and gazes into the camera.

If you liked ‘Drive My Car,’ you shouldn’t miss ‘Evil Does Not Exist’

Ryusuke Hamaguchi's latest film is a dark, fable-like story that again illustrates how hard it is to pin the director down as an artist

Hana (Ryô Nishikawa) stares into your soul.

Courtesy of Janus Films

Words by Dan Schindel

A story about a conflict between small-town folk and interloping big-city businesspeople seems too well-worn and banal to elicit much interest. But nothing is so simple in the films of Ryusuke Hamaguchi, who excels at taking material that could be trite and richly infusing it with humanity. He is perhaps the foremost director among Japan’s contemporary makers of realist dramas, and his reputation has increased in recent years, particularly after 2021’s Drive My Car won the Academy Award for Best International Film and was nominated for three others (notably, it was the first Japanese film to be nominated for Best Picture). But such a description belies how difficult it can be to pin Hamaguchi down as an artist. His newest film, Evil Does Not Exist, is a terrific showcase for this, continually zigging where you might expect it to zag.

A few hours’ drive outside of Tokyo is Mizubiki, a tiny forest town nestled between the mountains. It’s so remote that parts of it lack plumbing facilities, with many residents collecting their water from the local creek. The main character is Takumi (Hitoshi Omika), an unemployed widower who supports himself and his young daughter by doing odd jobs for neighbors. The community’s tranquility is interrupted by the arrival of representatives for a company that wants to build a glamping site in their woods. The developers hope to fast-track construction to take advantage of COVID-related government subsidies, and they expect little resistance. However, the residents quickly ascertain that the proposed placement of a septic tank on the shoddily designed site would endanger their water supply, and they move to block the project. Hoping to salvage the situation, PR rep Takahashi (Ryuji Kosaka) heads out to see Mizubiki for himself to negotiate with the townsfolk, and Takumi becomes his guide. 

In an extended scene during their car trip out of the exurbs, Takahashi expresses his weariness with fast-paced city life to his coworker. As one might anticipate, despite being on a mission to get Mizubiki to bend to his company’s demands, it’s not long before he’s instead beguiled by the town and the rural way of life. When Takumi instructs him on how to properly chop firewood, Kosaka subtly but noticeably changes his body language, drawing slack out of his posture as the labor invigorates him. The scene is shot from a medium distance, emphasizing the actors’ physicality and the way the characters’ dynamics change over the course of their interactions. Hamaguchi’s films are rife with this kind of attention to detail, rewarding close attention and filling even apparently straightforward sequences with psychological complexity.

A man holds up an axe towards the camera.

Takumi (Hitoshi Omika) teaches Takahashi how to chop firewood.

Courtesy of Janus Films

While Takahashi might eagerly embrace life in the sticks, the movie does not. One potential meaning of its unusual, ambiguous title is that nature is fully agnostic about questions of morality. As Takumi repeatedly asserts to his guests, despite the trappings of civilization, humans are still animals that are part of a struggle to survive; this is just easier to see in Mizubiki than Tokyo. The film neither romanticizes nor pities the town folks' hardscrabble lives. It is just how things are. It becomes clear how Takahashi’s sentimentality is informed mainly by his own disillusionment with modernity, but sentimentality can be dangerous when living in the woods requires vigilance.

Hamaguchi is comfortable in multiple distinct artistic modes. He is best-known for his dramas, but he has operated in nonfiction as well, among other things co-directing a quartet of documentaries collecting testimonies from survivors of the 2011 Tōhoku earthquake. He’s also worked in theater, which sometimes bleeds into his cinema. Drive My Car follows a grieving actor/director leading a production of Uncle Vanya. Blending these two threads, the four-and-a-half-hour Intimacies (2012) observes the difficulties of a real university production of a play, and includes a full performance of the show as its centerpiece. Additionally, there’s a strong literary vein in his films: Drive My Car is based partly on two short stories by Haruki Murakami, while Asako I & II (2018) adapts a novel by Tomoka Shibasaki. While in grad school, Hamaguchi helmed a student-film adaptation of Stanisław Lem's seminal science fiction novel Solaris (famously also the basis for the 1972 Soviet film by the great Andrei Tarkovsky), which leads to another element of his filmography: a sometimes ineffable but always potent sense of mystery.

A man squats at a riverbank and stares at partially frozen water.

Breathtaking nature shots show the sentimentality of a rural lifestyle.

Courtesy of Janus Films

Solaris is about a scientist on a space station attempting to communicate with an alien being, which manifests in the form of his dead lover. Asako I & II is about a woman’s romantic travails with two unrelated men who look identical (and are played by the same actor). In the short film Heaven Is Still Far Away (2016) a man haunted by the ghost of his high school classmate facilitates a heartbreaking reunion between her and her still-living sister. Hamaguchi studied under Kiyoshi Kurosawa, one of cinema’s best observers of the overlap between the uncanny and the everyday, and Kurosawa’s influence often shows. (Hamaguchi also wrote Kurosawa’s 2020 WWII film Wife of a Spy, which mixes the tropes of the war, espionage, and romance genres.)

In Evil Does Not Exist, what at first seems like a purely realistic story takes on a darker, stranger tone toward the end. The film culminates in a shocking act of violence that might or might not be literal. This surreal quality is heightened by Gift, a companion film of sorts to Evil Does Not Exist, which is abridged and silent, meant to be watched with a live rendition of Eiko Ishibashi’s orchestral score. Evil Does Not Exist is based heavily on dialogue, but stripping that aspect away appropriately reveals the more primal themes at work.

A man walks through a snowy forest while carrying his child on his back.

Human connections are at the heart of Hamaguchi's work.

Courtesy of Janus Films

Hamaguchi’s more recent features, including Drive My Car and Asako I & II, are available to stream. Also of note is Wheel of Fortune and Fantasy, his other 2021 film, a triptych of short stories about miscommunication leading to surprising encounters. In one segment, a woman listens to her friend rapturously describe her new boyfriend… and then it’s revealed that the boyfriend is the first woman’s ex. In another, apparent former high school classmates reunite, before they realize that they are actually strangers, having mutually mistaken each other for old friends. In Hamaguchi’s work, nuances of conversation and the complications of intersecting personal histories are of paramount importance. With Evil Does Not Exist in theaters, now’s the perfect time to catch up.

Published on May 3, 2024

Words by Dan Schindel

Dan Schindel is a copy editor and freelance critic living and working in Brooklyn.