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'Evil Does Not Exist': The Poetry of Film and Music

Photo Courtesy of Films We Like

Revisiting a film can bring out so much more than the initial viewing — sometimes it can truly be a blessing. For me, the chance to watch Ryusuke Hamaguchi’s brilliant Evil Does Not Exist thrice over in various settings — the Venice Film Festival, its theatrical release, and at a special screening with an accompanying talk by composer Eiko Ishibashi in Hong Kong — has only amplified my love for the film and its cryptic, challenging ambiguities, and its refusal to give easy answers. 

In what is essentially his take on Bill Forsyth’s Local Hero, Hamaguchi presents us with the small insular community of Mizubiki Village and the intrusion by corporate outsiders who send representatives to the village to set up a ‘conversation’ with the locals before imposing upon their land with little regard for the environmental and social implications of their actions, notably how it will affect the water supply. The representatives try to work things out between both sides, while the village inhabitants grapple with this inevitable endangerment to their way of life. A beautifully shot mood piece and character study of these different groups and individuals, elegiac in its contemplation of nature and utterly haunting in its examination of the human intrusions and divides that cause chaos and conflict amidst it. 

Director Ryusuke Hamaguchi / Photo Courtesy of Films We Like

Initially this collaboration, which developed into such an acclaimed narrative film, was conceived as video footage by Hamaguchi to accompany a musical endeavour of Ishibashi’s, providing a visual accompaniment to her work as essentially a music video of sorts. By removing himself of the medium of dialogue, Hamaguchi has spoken about how he felt invigorated to challenge himself visually, and that comes through beautifully both in Evil Does Not Exist and Gift, a separate project which stemmed from the initial concept of the Hamaguchi/Ishibashi collaboration where it utilises footage also used in Evil Does Not Exist but in a dialogue-free context. In their different forms, two things are apparent in both: the stunning camerawork which captures Mizubiki Village and the natural world around it with such low-key yet breathtaking beauty, and Ishibashi’s music which drives along both projects with its shifting tones between the serene and the unsettling. 

Having had the chance to experience this partnership both in the form of the narrative film, and the live musical performance project, initially I was much more invested in the former and left a little cold by the latter. Where Evil Does Not Exist drew me in with its captivating storytelling, I found myself at times at arm’s length to the approach of Gift, which felt like a truncated form of what we got with the narrative film. While I could appreciate the splendour of the visuals and the music, I missed the expertly crafted editing and dialogue of the wonderful scene between the corporate lackeys in a car about dating apps and their goals in life; or the town hall sequence where Hamaguchi offers a heated discussion between the villagers and the outsiders with such deft precision. These are elements sacrificed in the dialogue-free Gift, rendering the film a frustrating watch when seeing footage repurposed in a form which removed so many of Evil Does Not Exist’s strengths. 

But as I evaluated more about what exactly I got out of this privilege seeing Gift and Evil Does Not Exist, I began to consider the way in which the origins of the former paved the way for the conception of the latter. It is through the objective of creating a purely visual and musically-driven piece that Hamaguchi and Ishibashi fashioned the extraordinary visual palette and unforgettable chords that exists in both films. And for Gift, Hamaguchi had found the general outline of the plot, the acting ensemble, and other such elements to provide the template that he soon realised had the potential to develop into a full narrative film. 

Composer Eiko Ishibashi Photo Courtesy of Films We Like / Jim O'Rourke

With that in mind, in retrospect, I’ve gained an appreciation for Gift both on its own merits, and also how it created the first spark that soon blossomed into Evil Does Not Exist. The differences between the two become more poignant, as well. In Gift, the lack of dialogue leaves the corporate outsiders as a looming, intruding presence, and the ways in which both films utilise music as a driving force, but also in abruptly cutting out the music while accompanying the visuals to wake us with these harsh blows. 

During her talk after Evil Does Not Exist, Ishibashi raised an interesting point about how music should never control the mood of a film or the audience’s contemplation or emotions. Instead, must should act as an accompaniment. This could be interpreted in a number of ways, from modesty regarding her craft to an overarching discussion of how much music manipulates film. 

Hamaguchi, in both Evil Does Not Exist and Gift, crafts such distinct rhythms to his storytelling, pacing and accompanying them with sound, music, dialogue (and lack thereof) in such different ways. Ishibashi’s control over the two works is so unique, where in Gift, her music is at the forefront, the central focus and where the visuals are an accompaniment, whereas in Evil Does Not Exist the music reverts to being the accompaniment to what is onscreen, without diminishing its potent impact.

Ishibashi’s words put me in mind of the rhythm of cinema and how this collaboration between her and Hamaguchi truly exemplifies how their two artistries come together: directors are composers, and composers are directors. 

Evil Does Not Exist is now in theatres across Canada and the U.S.


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