There’s an old episode of the podcast Reply All I think about all the time called “Negative Mount Pleasant” — a title that reveals nothing about what it’s about. Also, the first eight minutes of the episode aren’t super instructive either. It opens with tape from a village meeting, where the community of Mount Pleasant is accosting their representative about a mysterious new development that is happening in their backyard.
This isn’t exactly how Evil Does Not Exist starts. But like “Negative Mount Pleasant,” it makes the small-town stakes feel big — and specific. The conflict in director Ryûsuke Hamaguchi’s excellent new film concerns the imposition of a new “glamping” site just outside Tokyo. Some 6,000-plus miles from the Wisconsin village of Mount Pleasant, a talent agency has arrived in the remote town of Mizubiki to introduce a project sure to make it a “tourist hot spot.”
“Water flows downhill,” one person explains. Or more simply: shit rolls downhill
A slideshow explains that glamping is “glamorous + camping.” (The Japanese word for “glamping” is, apparently, “glamping” in English, so it even sounds fittingly out of place in dialogue.) Mizubiki is teeny, the kind of town where an eight-year-old can walk home alone. Naturally, the community is resistant to this crass existential threat to their way of life.
It’s not the opening scene, but the first long, animating one: various people asking extremely particular questions about the construction of the glamping site, suggesting that it would disturb the ecological balance of the natural resources and beauty the town relies on. The strongest point of conflict is, no joke, the placement of a septic tank. “Water flows downhill,” one person explains. Or more simply: shit rolls downhill.
The talent agency reps are dismissive, in the passive way corporate-speak excels at. “Your valuable input will be considered,” one replies.
Like that episode of Reply All, this film was made with a tremendous amount of confidence — that such a small meeting can be tremendously compelling. And Hamaguchi has a lot of reasons to be confident. With his Best Picture-nominated Haruki Murakami adaptation Drive My Car, the Japanese filmmaker’s international profile is higher than ever.
You can roughly split Hamaguchi’s work into two modes: there’s what I’ll call “Tight Hamaguchi,” which is best exemplified by Drive My Car but is also reflective of the excellent doppelganger drama Asako I & II. Then, there’s “Loose Hamaguchi,” like the vignettes of Wheel of Fortune and Fantasy, the five-hour domestic epic Happy Hour, or the Cassavetes-inflected Passion.
Evil Does Not Exist is the first that feels like something in between his two styles. It has the polish and patience of a Tight Hamaguchi but also the subtle motions of a Loose Hamaguchi. Considering its dramatic title (predictably, a misnomer), this is a remarkably quiet movie. At first, it seems like the central character will be Takumi (Hitoshi Omika), a handyman, the “local odd-job man” of Mizubiki. The emphasis is on the domestic patterns of the town and its close-knit community.
The film then shifts perspectives to the two talent agent reps, suddenly having a change of heart about the glamping project after representing it so poorly.
In fact, they’re having a familiar post-pandemic crisis: Takahashi (Ryuji Kosaka) and Mayuzumi (Ayaka Shibutani, who deep Hamaguchi heads will recognize from Happy Hour) admit how little they want to be in this job — especially when they mutually agree on the morality of it (not good!). They’re not evil people; they just do the bidding of their bosses. That is what work is, isn’t it? To do what your boss asks, without question, and then complain about it later.
Evil Does Not Exist is saturated in these post-lockdown feels. Maybe we should reexamine our relationship to work. The idea is punctuated by a frustrating video call in which Takahashi and Mayuzumi’s objections are ignored by a money-hungry exec. We also learn that the rush to get the glamping site done, in spite of the townspeople’s concerns, has to do with a pandemic subsidy from the government. Returning to Mizubiki, Takumi teaches Takahashi how to chop a log of wood. The sensation is ecstatic. Now, Takahashi is fantasizing about leaving his soulless day job to live a tranquil, simple life in the woods — a relatable desire for the WFH class.
By contrast, everyone in the town appears happy and spiritually fulfilled, satisfied by the harmony of their lives. From this idea, it’s easy to see Hamaguchi’s work in line with the compact, anti-capitalist movies of Kelly Reichardt. But the film’s final minutes take a surprising, stunning turn.
In “Negative Mount Pleasant,” the large development is quickly revealed to be one big lie. Without giving away Evil’s ending, the big flip isn’t the deception of the construction site or its imposition on the town. Instead, Hamaguchi inverts our imagination of that idyllic rural life, contending that a tourist’s romanticization of “getting away from the city” might blind them from the realities of what that really means.
After all, isn’t that what glamping is?