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Evil Does Not Exist (Ryûsuke Hamaguchi, 2023)

Ryûsuke Hamaguchi’s latest feature, Evil Does Not Exist, arrives with an alternate, shadow version: GIFT, a re-edited film created as a silent accompaniment to a live performance by composer Eiko Ishibashi, who also scored Hamaguchi’s smash hit Drive My Car (2021). Evil Does Not Exist and GIFT operate in conversation with each other, emphasizing different moods and ideas, but grounded in the same story about a small village whose residents reject the efforts of a Tokyo-based company to build a glamping site in their town.

In Evil Does Not Exist, which made the rounds of last year’s festival circuit and is currently in theaters, Hamaguchi follows the recently widowed Takumi (nonprofessional actor Hitoshi Omika), a local handyman and forestry expert, as he collects fresh spring water for the local udon shop, plucks leaves of wild wasabi, and instructs his young daughter on the dangers of injured deer and the musical properties of pheasant feathers. Following a surgically precise, and very funny, town-hall scene midway through the film—in which the locals push back on the city folks’ business plan—the narrative forks unexpectedly, and the two representatives of the glamping company come to the fore. In the end, the film returns to the countryside, with a conclusion that is provocative in its absolute rejection of interpretation.

GIFT made its U.S. premiere last week at Film at Lincoln Center. Viewers who are already familiar with Evil Does Not Exist will be treated to a dream-logic reimagining of the movie’s motifs and themes, with the shape-shifting music of Ishibashi front and center. The opening scene makes clear the uneasy relationship between sound and image: as the camera slowly tracks along a forest floor, gazing upward through the canopy, Ishibashi’s snaking, layered harmonies suggest both contemplation and doom. Her tonally fluid rhythms wash over Hamaguchi’s images, here edited to fracture the timeline, chopping up the story in a way that transforms the crystalline, philosophical narrative of Evil Does Not Exist into a more ominous form.

I spoke with Hamaguchi about working closely with Ishibashi on Evil Does Not Exist, the tension between the film and its Spinozan title, his desire to create productive confusion, and more.

Where did the title come from? Did you come up with it after the film was finished or beforehand?

Before writing the script, I started researching and then spending time in the area where Eiko Ishibashi lives. There, I decided I would be shooting nature. I thought about how I could describe nature in a different way, and that’s when I thought of the phrase—“evil does not exist.” And the story, along with the title, might make people think about the presence of morals in human society—but then the ending collapses that.

Have you spent a lot of time in nature? Are you a camper or hiker yourself?

I am not somebody who has gone hiking or camping very much. It’s not until this film that I encountered and dealt with nature so deeply.

As I understand it, the project grew out of your collaboration with Ishibashi. Can you talk about how you came to work together on this project?

Back at the end of 2021, Eiko Ishibashi asked me whether I would create visuals for her live performance. This is after we worked together on Drive My Car. I figured working with her would turn into something interesting, so I accepted. At that point, I didn’t know what she actually wanted, so we exchanged emails, wrote to each other, shared motifs, until gradually I realized that I wanted to go shoot her making music. We went out to her place and saw the landscape around where she works and lives, in a house among nature, and I watched her make music there. She would be twisting the knobs, making really loud music against this very quiet natural landscape. Watching her, I started to realize what I wanted to shoot—I figured the environment in which she works must have an influence on her music-making, and that’s when I started doing the research I mentioned earlier.

Where did the narrative come from? 

I went out with the director of photography [Yoshio Kitagawa] to see what we could shoot in the landscape. The driver for these trips was Hitoshi Omika, who plays Takumi, the protagonist of the film. That aside, Eiko Ishibashi also introduced us to her friends in the area, one of whom is a nature expert who could tell us about the trees, or where the water sprung from. He was a 70-year-old, and he also became a model for the older councilman. We spoke to a lot of people in the area, and in doing so we heard about there being a town-hall meeting around glamping, and what happened there was close to what you see in the film. I used this incident as the center of the story. I went around to research more and hear from other people. And listening to these people, they became models for the characters.

One important thing: the final goal was to create visuals for Eiko Ishibashi’s live performance, so I needed to have a lot of footage that I could use freely. This became a sort of convoluted process, but I decided to make a film that could be the origin for this footage. I figured that by shooting Evil Does Not Exist, we could have a lot of footage that could be repurposed for GIFT. Initially, there was no intention to release Evil Does Not Exist as a separate film, but once we started shooting, it felt like it was something worth releasing.

In the past, you’ve talked about how rehearsal and adhering to the script is a very important part of your filmmaking process. But it sounds like in this film there was a bit more improvisation during the production and conception processes. Is that right? 

It’s a difficult question, because it comes down to what point of the process we can call improvisation. However, I would say the script was written based on research, and about 90 percent of the shoot was shot in accordance with the script. Of course, sometimes things do happen—for example, our assistant director came across the bones of a baby deer, so we shot that. We also happened to capture images of deer in the wild. After we shot that, I figured we could create a dreamlike sequence using it. But I would still say that basically we shot according to the script.

I’m not sure this is something that would be considered improvisation, but I think ultimately I am trying to capture coincidences when I’m making films. I do work with my actors and we do readings, but it’s not to tie them down to the script but rather to prepare, so the actors can be more honest in their emotions. Through this preparation process we are able to capture coincidences, and coincidences could be a type of improvisation.

You’ve said that confusion is what you were looking for when you made this film. 

When people ask me how they are supposed to understand or take the ending, I end up wanting to say: that’s exactly what I want people to be asking of the film! Perhaps there’s a contradiction in my way of thinking, but when I’m making a story, each character has their own life, and I direct them that way. In a sense, that means we can never understand them fully. I think the way the film ends is my reaction to the responses that I’ve received to my filmmaking, and a way for me to say that film is something that is not understandable.

Every time I watch it, it yields more ideas, out of that confusion.

Ultimately, I am creating dramas that are close to reality in a way—I want to think about why people act the way they do and depict that as closely as possible to reality. But the camera positions I use also create a sort of fiction, and there is a contradiction that exists between these two ideas. To me, filmmaking is that contradiction, and fiction-making is that contradiction. While we don’t know what the character ultimately does in the film, there are many things that we don’t know about in this world. I want my filmmaking to be close to this world, a part of this world, in that way.