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Review: Evil Does Not Exist

[The following review contains MINOR SPOILERS; YOU HAVE BEEN WARNED!]

What I admire most about director Ryusuke Hamaguchi is the clarity of his themes. Although his films tend to be narratively dense and structurally complex, it’s also entirely possible to express what they’re actually about in a single word. Drive My Car, for example, thoroughly explores the concept of communication—language, compromise, and unspoken regrets. His latest work, on the other hand—the hauntingly beautiful Evil Does Not Exist—is explicitly a meditation on the subject of balance.

The story revolves around a quaint, quiet rural community in a mountainous region of Japan. When a talent agency based out of Tokyo proposes a plan to develop a local deer trail into a luxurious camping resort, the residents vehemently oppose the notion; while the increased tourism might bolster the town’s economy, it would undoubtedly upset the delicate equilibrium of the ecosystem. The location of the site’s septic tank is particularly contentious; because its estimated volume is too insufficient to adequately accommodate the maximum number of guests, excess waste would inevitably pollute the groundwater—and, consequently, the nearby river. As the wise, affable village chief patiently explains to the project's hopelessly naïve public relations managers: “Water always flows downhill. What you do upstream will end up affecting those living downstream.”

This central conflict permeates every aspect of the production. The sound design is especially exquisite, contrasting the harmonious symphony of the undisturbed natural world—the rustle of dry leaves, the flutter and chirp of songbirds, the babble of a trickling brook—with the dissonant cacophony of mankind’s gradual encroachment—the mechanical roar of a chainsaw, the echoing thwack of an axe splitting logs, the thundering crack of distant hunting rifles. The cinematography is similarly characterized by juxtaposed extremes. Hamaguchi favors long, uninterrupted takes observed from only one camera angle; he’ll pan slightly to adjust the frame, but otherwise refuses to artificially impose rhythm via editing. This deliberate pacing makes the jarringly abrupt transitions between scenes more impactful; cutting from a static image to a rough, jittery handheld shot immediately shatters the previously still, serene atmosphere, disorienting the audience and irrevocably altering their perception of the setting.

A friendly warning to less adventurous viewers: do not seek out this movie expecting a happy ending, or even a concrete conclusion; as the end credits roll, major plot threads are intentionally left unresolved, and several significant questions remain unanswered. A conventional tragedy would, at the very least, provide some semblance of closure—a coda suggesting that the preceding suffering ultimately served a greater purpose. Evil Does Not Exist, however, offers no such “comfort” or “satisfaction”—just the hollow dread of an uncertain future.

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