A near-masterpiece from one of the most significant Japanese directors working today.
Himizu, the masterful new offering from Japanese director Sion Sono, unfolds in the aftermath of the 2011 tsunami and subsequent nuclear meltdown that devastated the filmmaker’s home country. But according to this grim vision of Japanese society, things were contaminated long before the Fukushima disaster.
A post-apocalyptic vision of a world gone mad, the film explores such perennial Sono concerns as what it means to be young in a culture that both radically promotes individual achievement and denies those very possibilities, and the lure of the death instinct which pulls individuals towards violence directed both outward and inward.
Living in a decrepit seaside shack with an indifferent mother, subject to periodic visits from a drunken father who returns only to beat him, 14-year-old Sumida (Shôta Sometani) is left more or less to fend for himself. He’s aided in running the family’s boat rental business by the warm community of squatters – men and women displaced by the tsunami – whom he allows to set up tents on his family’s property.
But mostly Sumida wants to be left alone to live a normal life and escape both the cycles of violence that plague nearly all the film’s familial and romantic relationships, and the pressures of society, voiced by the boy’s schoolteacher, towards individual exceptionalism. Against that man’s insistence that the Japanese are a people who rise from disaster to achieve great things, Sumida asserts that he wants nothing more than to be "ordinary", to be "neither happy nor unhappy".
But even such a modest goal proves impossible and with his trademark flights of insane violent invention, Sono shows us how Sumida never had a chance. Exactly executed nutso set-pieces abound, as when a pair of characters rob and kill a nuke-loving neo-Nazi. As does an air of general menace, signaled by the preponderance of confused, knife-wielding young men that seem to dominate the urban landscape.
"Who am I?" asks one of these youthful criminals. It’s a question echoed in a poem repeated several times throughout the film, and one that confronts an entire society whose uncertainty and violent tendencies are traced back, via the teacher’s monologue, at least as far as World War II. It is, furthermore, an especially pressing question in the aftermath of the recent disaster.
Sumida’s answer to his own existential crisis is to become a righteous avenger, passivity giving way to a misguided activism. In Sono’s films a death instinct often wars – and triumphs – over a call to life. The most concentrated example of this struggle, which isn’t much of a struggle at all, comes in his 2010 film Cold Fish, where threatened manhood gives way to
gruesome violence. The mayhem is only a tad less explicit in Himizu, but it’s a much less nihilistic exercise than his earlier movie. The love of a (creepily) selfless girl and a community of caring outsiders point the way forward, but as the endlessly reiterated shots of a field of post-tsunami rubble remind us, any optimism Sono allows to creep into his extraordinary film is provisional at best.
Those familiar with Sono’s previous films know what to expect, but how will the director deal with the recent tsunami and nuclear meltdown that devastated his country?
Sono’s facility with comically violent – and insanely inventive – set-pieces makes his films head-shaking delights without diluting his seriousness of purpose.
A near-masterpiece from one of the most significant directors working today, Himizu combines all the director’s strengths while introducing a tentative humanism that proves remarkably affecting.