Ryûsuke Hamaguchi’s ‘Evil Does Not Exist’ Meditates on Humans’ Intrusion on Nature

A great filmmaker can find success and feel propelled to go further against the grain. Japan’s Ryûsuke Hamaguchi seems to be operating this way with his new film, “Evil Does Not Exist.” After receiving much acclaim with his Oscar-winning 2021 film, “Drive My Car,” Hamaguchi now returns with what can be deemed an environmentalist meditation. The latter word is crucial because this never pretends to be an easy, plot-driven film. It is not a difficult or taxing watch, with a rather brisk running time. Hamaguchi also does not pretend to spoon feed us. What “Evil Does Not Exist” says about humans and our intrusion into nature flows out of its images, performances and interactions.

The setting is Mizubiki, a rural wooded area not far from Tokyo. Takumi (Hitoshi Omika) spends his days gathering water, wood and wild wasabi for a local udon restaurant. It is a simple, but peaceful way of life. His young daughter, Hana (Ryo Nishikawa), usually tags along during his ventures into the nearby forest and rivers. Takumi is the kind of absent-minded person prone to almost forgetting to pick up Hana from school, but overall life is serene. That serenity might come under threat when a wealthy developer seeks to buy a portion of land in order to build a “glamping” site. Two PR people, Takahashi (Ryûji Kosaka) and Mayuzumi (Ayaka Shibutani), hold a town meeting to convince locals of the safety of the plan. But there are doubts considering the danger the site’s septic tanks will pose for the town’s water supply. The PR pair is tasked with trying to hire Takumi as a kind of guide or consultant, in order to win over everyone else.

Admirers first introduced to Hamaguchi through “Drive My Car” might be taken by surprise with this film’s tone. The previous movie, adapted from a short story collection by Haruki Murakami, was a wonderfully immersive, lucid examination of a man dealing with his past, infidelity and regret. “Evil Does Not Exist” returns the director to a less mainstream mode. It’s not an archaic arthouse experiment, but a film where we are made to truly spend time within its frames. Hamaguchi opens on a long tracking shot gazing up at towering trees before focusing on currents of war and the peacefulness of undisturbed plant life. Such moments are a living portrait of Takumi’s world, now coveted by a greedy developer gamely played by Yoshinori Miyata. Side characters simply exist, sometimes proving they are smarter than what the big city people suspect. One friend instantly pinpoints that the developers are eager to start building in order to claim large state subsidies, regardless of the locals’ concerns.

The heart of the movie is its middle section. Instead of turning Takahashi and Mayuzumi into cardboard PR villains, Hamaguchi gives them extended moments that allow the pair to become plausible, intriguing people. During a wonderfully acted drive down a road, they share about their lives. Takahashi is nearing middle age and hopes to get married and move out into the country. Mayuzumi is more jaded by life and admits she doesn’t mind being alone. Both concur in that they work for a scumbag. Rarely do we get to choose our own bosses. Instead of grand speeches or twists, their shift in perception about Mizubiki is expressed in small moments. Takahashi volunteers to help Takumi chop wood. It feels invigorating and we can see Takahashi begin to doubt even further his employer’s aims for this place. 

Such are the rhythms of “Evil Does Not Exist.” The environment becomes the real lead player. Audiences will be left scratching their heads in the final moments of this film. Hamaguchi plays with slight bits of surrealism, throwing in one hallucinatory moment involving Hana and a sudden act of violence. The main question will be, “What does it mean?” Hamaguchi refuses to end on an outright sermon. Though, this film is never thoughtless. What is clear is that when the greed of outsiders begins to impose itself on a community, the effect can be unsettling. Takumi and his neighbors are eternally linked to their land. Just spending time with them begins to stir a change in the two PR representatives. Hamaguchi’s film is ultimately a meditation on why some of the world’s delicate balances should be left at peace.

Evil Does Not Exist” releases May 3 in select theaters.