Many tragedies never really end, they just fade from view. Such has been the case with Minamata disease, a neurological disorder caused by mercury poisoning that afflicted thousands of people in Kumamoto Prefecture in one of the postwar era’s most notorious examples of industrial pollution.

The culprit was a chemical company called Chisso, which had been dumping methylmercury into the sea and spent years trying to evade responsibility before it was forced to make a massive payout to victims in 1973.

A recent biopic about the American photographer W. Eugene Smith, who helped bring the scandal to the world’s attention at the time, underscored the impression that it was a tragic episode from Japan’s past, rather than an ongoing concern. That assumption is resoundly disproved by Kazuo Hara’s “Minamata Mandala,” which documents the protracted legal battles of victims for whom the story is still far from over.

Minamata Mandala
Run Time 369 mins.
Language Japanese
Opens Now showing

Flawed criteria established in 1977 meant that many of those suffering from mercury exposure were never officially recognized. Hara’s film begins in 2004, when the Supreme Court ruled in favor of a group of plaintiffs who’d brought a lawsuit against the national and prefectural governments 22 years earlier.

That’s just the first in a string of court verdicts, each of them followed by angry postmortems in which the victims and their supporters confront government representatives. Some of the film’s most indelible images are of the blank faces of officialdom; current Tokyo Gov. Yuriko Koike, who was environment minister in 2004, is just one of the people who struggles to muster even a pretense of empathy.

Hara is working in the same mode as his 2017 documentary “Sennan Asbestos Disaster,” another story of ordinary folk attempting to wrestle some accountability from the state. That film went on for 3½ hours; “Minamata Mandala” is nearly twice as long.

Even with two intermissions, it’s an epic commitment to watch, though that feels appropriate for a story that’s being measured in decades. The plaintiffs Hara meets know they may not live long enough to see a verdict.

Their struggles in the courts — which aren’t always easy to follow — move in tandem with a push to revise the medical consensus. Two of the film’s most colorful characters are a pair of university researchers who successfully challenge the scientific basis for assessing victims, proving that the government’s experts had it all wrong.

In a delightful scene, one of them hops on a train with a carrier bag containing a brain donated by a patient. He couldn’t look happier.

Although Hara loves a good argument, he’s more interested in people than the legal process. He goes on some entertaining digressions, including an exploration into the past loves of a woman with congenital Minamata disease, reuniting her with some of the men for whom she’d fallen.

A mandala is a symbolic representation of the universe, used to help guide people toward enlightenment. In the film’s remarkable closing stretch, Hara does just that, stepping back from the endless lawsuits and appeals to ask if there are other ways to find closure.

He meets author Michiko Ishimure, once an ardent and angry chronicler of the Minamata scandal, shortly before her death in 2018. “Hating someone is agonizing,” she says, looking positively serene. Sometimes, you just have to forgive.

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