I can see why Sion Sono was drawn to Himizu. The manga, which ran from 2001 to 2002, seems like exactly the sort of thing that would appeal to the man who made Cold Fish and Suicide Club. But that’s not really a compliment.
Immediately after finishing the film, I went to read the manga. Usually I’m not particularly interested in checking source material after seeing an adaptation, but the film deals rather explicitly with things that hadn’t taken place when the manga was written. And now, 43 chapters later, I can say that the film is indeed very different from the manga.
And that is a very good thing.
Director: Sion Sono
Release Date: 3/14/14 (NYC)
Himizu was supposed to be just like the manga. The original version of the script more closely adhered to its source, but like much of Japan, it was radically affected by the disaster on March 11th, 2011. The Tōhoku earthquake and tsunami was catastrophic, and it unleashed the monster at Fukushima Daiichi, irradiating the landscape. This event obviously didn’t weigh on the mind of creator Minoru Furuya when he imagined Himizu a decade before, but to Sion Sono, it changed the tone of the country and of its conversation. Himizu was made in a certain time, and it’s one that (in Sono’s mind) ended with the disaster.
And so that’s how Himizu begins, with a tracking shot that scans a town that had been destroyed by the tsunami. And in that rubble, Yuichi Sumida (Shota Sometani) finds a wrecked washing machine. In that washing machine, a handgun. He puts the gun to his head and pulls the trigger.
He wakes up.
A “himizu” is a type of mole found in Japan. Sumida wants to be one, hiding away with an ordinary, boring life. He has no dreams or desires, no life plans or goals. He is a 14 year old boy with no future, but he has a good heart. Beside his shack live some people made homeless by the disaster. In their tents, they get by on generally good spirits and Sumida’s kindness. These are the good people in his life; his parents are the bad. His father left, but he comes back periodically looking for money and beating Sumida for insolent behavior. His mother has no love for him either, and she leaves him alone with the shack and its boats.
Somewhere in between is Keiko Chazawa (Fumi Nikaido), a girl who has an obsession with Sumida. She literally stalks him and her walls are covered with things he’s said. Like Sumida, her parents hate her, and the reveal of her mother’s gift to her is one of the most disturbing and depressing images I’ve seen in some time. So they are kindred spirits, and Chizawa loves Sumida, but he finds her annoying. Sounds typical, right? That’s exactly what you’d expect from a manga adaptation, but it’s not something from the manga. In it, Chazawa is far less creepy (although her weird behavior is unexplained there), and Sumida takes to her immediately.
Both Sumida and Chazawa are 14, thrust into adulthood well before their time, and the ignorance of youth plays a major role in their decisions. Sumida’s thoughts constantly turn to suicide, as he sees only one way out of his situation. Chazawa is somewhat more level-headed, but her usually-chipper attitude is mitigated somewhat by her tendency to burst into tears at a moment’s notice. (It should be noted that Fumi Nikaido is an excellent crier, and her performance is spectacular overall. Shota Sometani is great as well, though his character gives him a bit less room to show off his chops.)
I generally dislike comparing an adaptation to its source material, but here it reflects a new context and a new world. The best adaptations change the material as needed to suit modern times. And it’s interesting to see what has and hasn’t changed in Sono’s process. Dialogue and events are ripped from the manga, but context is everything. Despite the limited runtime, character motivations are clearer, and the restructuring of relationships goes a long way towards bringing Himizu‘s far-reaching narrative together. It feels cohesive in a way the manga doesn’t, and although it’s a bit long, the extra time isn’t wasted.
Himizu ends with hope. I was shocked, actually. At a key moment, I thought I had figured out the narrative. Three recurring images would play out in a series of heartbreaking images and leave me without anything to cling to. And while some of those images played out, I was wrong about the things that mattered most. In its final moments, Himizu looks forward. It says that Japan can be strong again. Two years after the event, as Fukushima’s radiation is set to hit California’s shores, it’s a good time to reflect on what the disaster has done to the people. Himizu was made only a couple of months after the tsunami hit, but its belief that things can and will get better sends a powerful and important message.