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  • Writer's pictureJames McCleary

Evil Does Not Exist // Film Review

Ryusuke Hamaguchi’s Evil Does Not Exist was very nearly not a film at all. Surprisingly, the acclaimed director’s follow-up to 2019 Oscar-nominee Drive My Car actually began life as a music video for Japanese singer-songwriter Eiko Ishibashi. From here, it blossomed into a half-hour silent short, and then into a narrative feature every bit as masterful as the director’s “major works”. Some people just can’t take a day off.

Even as a feature, Evil Does Not Exist carries with it shades of both its music video and short film origins. The film depicts life in a rural forest village called Harasawa, just two hours outside of Tokyo, as they face the threat of a new 'glamping' resort which could destroy their ecosystem via sewage piping and potential fire hazards. Hamaguchi’s approach to exploring this material is largely image-based; the first half hour of the film in particular goes nearly without a line of dialogue, portraying with the aid of an awe-strikingly epic score from Ishibashi the happy routine of the Harasawa locals.


From log-chopping and gathering water to the adventures of a young girl running through the trees, there is a sense of pulsing life to the woodland landscape. Each of these sequences are sublime; composed with all the scope and depth of paintings, which has the additional effect of aligning the villagers with their environment. We accept instantly tat they are as part of this natural world as the rain or the rivers within it.


This leads to a wonderful contrast when two talent agents arrive on behalf of the glamping company looking to profit off the land. This odd pair arrive in bright puffer coats with flashy PowerPoint presentations and a confident swagger, thoroughly underestimating the community they’re about to face. Although well-meaning, they are immediately shown to be out of their element and ignorant to the needs of the indigenous citizens.

This sometimes hilarious, usually infuriating conflict culminates a cathartic, lengthy set-piece exactly midway through this otherwise dreamlike film, wherein the two agents attempt to brief the community on what to expect at a town hall sit-down, and have their arguments systematically torn to pieces by a range of personable characters. It’s a riveting achievement in comedy - and a great reminder that Hamaguchi is as strong a writer as he is director - though the joy of the scene is quickly soured by the knowledge that none of the expressed needs to protect Harasawa will actually be addressed by the glamping team.


From an environmental perspective, Evil Does Not Exist is a curious title. The never-seen management team responsible for the talent agents would certainly appear to fit the bill as an “evil” force, forbidding any tangible changes to the glamping business plan despite the life-ruining impact it could have on the locals. Hamaguchi is not quite that black-and-white as a storyteller however; the world of the Harasawa woods is more elemental than moral. For example, the young girl Hana is symbolic of all innocence in the woods, while her father stands for the working men and the talent agents are corporate types merely beholden to the next rung on the ladder, as are their employers. Each of the characters in Evil Does Not Exist is bound to their track even when - without giving anything away about the film's immensely impactful finale - they know that something terrible is afoot.


For a film which began as such a minor endeavour, Evil Does Not Exist is an emotional epic, taking us through the Harasawa forests to stumble upon stories of both great laughter and sorrow. At the very centre of this tale is Hamaguchi's understanding that there is no better argument for environmentalism in the face of industrial action than a simple tour through its many twisting beautiful sights. Boiled down to its basic elements, Evil Does Not Exist is a film with a true love for all life, which makes it all the more painful when uncontrollable forces both natural and otherwise begin to tear it away.

Reviewed at the Venice Film Festival.

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