TIFF 2023: ‘Evil Does Not Exist’ Devastates From a Distance

19 October 2023 / by Jay Ashdown
TIFF 2023: Evil Does Not Exist
TIFF 2023: ‘Evil Does Not Exist’ Devastates From a Distance
Hamaguchi’s latest feature is a self-guided tour of gentrification’s heartaches

With an upward gaze into the swaying branches of Japan’s rural woods, Evil Does Not Exist introduces the audience to its love interest. This is the village of Mizubiki, home to a stoic forest, a gentle crowd of deer, and a harmonious population of citizens. Eiko Ishibashi’s score swells as the wind rustles the trees, beckoning the audience into this peaceful ecosystem. 


When wandering through the village with local handyman Takumi and his daughter Hana on their trail hikes, the viewer has a chance to breathe in the environment. Yoshio Kitagawa’s pristine cinematography, combined with Ryusuke Hamaguchi’s patient directing, creates a setting that mimics the slow-moving lives of Mizubiki’s population. In the opening scene, Takumi chops wood outside his log cabin, unleashing a satisfying *crack* that echoes across the woods. Steam rises, noodles stir and broth pours, in a close-up of a local chef lovingly preparing Udon. Viewers follow along with Hana’s strolls, experiencing through her eyes the wonder of the forest; running her hands through tree branches, crunching leaves under her feet, making eye contact with a doe. 


Just as closely as audiences observe Mizubiki’s natural landscape, they’re invited to examine its people. Opting out of a classically climactic Hollywood monologue, Hamaguchi only allows his characters to speak through their actions. The villagers’ unending love for their land is expressed through how they care for it. This exposition is refreshingly self-explanatory, and no dialogue feels wasted. Often, straightforward conversations about work or family are filmed with a wide angle, encapsulating the otherwise lukewarm scene in one breathtaking painting-esque landscape. 


The natural environment of this screening was a reprieve from TIFF’s bustling downtown core, but the tranquility doesn’t last long.


Two salesmen, all the way from Tokyo, arrive in Mizubiki with stylish business wear. Behind them, a weapon: a PowerPoint presentation, delivered to unimpressed village people in rows of classroom chairs, to obnoxiously advertise a “glamping” site. One that will hold just 40 inhabitants, but will tip the balance of the village’s delicate ecosystem. 


It’s a frustrating first glimpse at the inevitability of gentrification. This form of evil, as warned in the title, is an imposition on innocent neighbourhoods disguised as a proposal. Tension develops as the residents discuss the future of their home over dinner. As they go about their daily routines once more, it comes with a new layer of fear that they may soon no longer have these routines to follow. 


With its simplistic, sometimes lonely character development, Evil Does Not Exist operates in the style of a nature documentary sans-David Attenborough narration — one that feels increasingly cruel as the runtime plays out. When characters are left on their own, a feeling of dread creeps up on the viewer, as though a predator looms just outside the frame. And when tragedy strikes, there’s no space for reflection. Things are often left frustratingly unsaid, especially when the film reaches its abruptly jarring end.


Hamaguchi’s refusal to get viewers close – literally – to his characters, or neatly wrap up his narrative, delivers a message on its own. For victims of gentrification, there isn’t enough time for satisfying conclusions. There’s no proper way to say goodbye to a home cherished for a lifetime, only for it to be snatched out of reach by the hands of corporate greed. Just as soon as they love Mizubiki, the audience is forced to grieve for it.


Evil Does Not Exist doesn’t prove the case its title makes. Its glimpse into the unending desperation of both sides — villagers protecting their home versus talent agents protecting their livelihoods — may give the audience sympathy for these characters. But the nebulous influence of greed seeps into every moment the tourism industry looms over Mizubiki. 


As audiences are given intimate access to the village’s tranquil landscape and the people who vow to protect it, they are reminded of the communities evil destroys. As the personal lives of the agents working on this destruction become known, the psychological damage evil deals is discovered.


The people involved in this forest’s future aren’t evil, but evil is always with them. It looms, waiting to take all they hold dear. All the helpless viewer can do is watch it play out.