Minamata stars Johnny Depp as a photojournalist in Japan

Some stirring movies about corporate crimes and negligence in public health have appeared from time to time with outsize stars in key roles. It's a thought to keep in mind for this new film starring Johnny Depp in the unlikely role of real-life pioneering photojournalist, W. Eugene Smith.

If you're not in the know, Smith is one of the most important American photographers in the development of the photo essay. Famous for raw, gritty and beautiful images that told a tough story.

Documentary may the preferred genre for stories about scandalous company behaviour, the merchants of doubt who aid and abet, and the governments who help cover up. But it doesn't have to be the way to go for impact. The Insider with Al Pacino and Russell Crowe told the story of a whistleblower in the tobacco industry. Julia Roberts played Erin Brockovich. A star can bring a narrative about gross injustice home.

So, a pirate of the Caribbean turning up in a remote Japanese fishing village may not be so bizarre, particularly when he is in such heavy disguise. The familiar Depp voice and certain mannerisms remain, though.

In Minamata, Depp, surely one of the dreamiest male stars, has adopted a look not unlike the real-life subject. American photojournalist Smith had a pronounced broad forehead, thick, unruly hair and beard, and he wore glasses. His last assignment was to Minamata, a fishing village in Japan run by Chisso Corporation, which is still operating under a slightly different name.

The tough American, a veteran photographer from World War II in the Pacific, was working for Life magazine when approached to document the suffering in Minamata and help convey it to the world.

When he heard about the environmental disaster in Japan, he already had famous portfolios from being a photographer on the ground in the Pacific in World War II, while visiting humanitarian doctor Albert Schweitzer in Africa, and captured in the grim industrial sites in Pittsburgh, USA.

Johnny Depp plays American photojournalist W. Eugene Smith in Minamata. Picture: Rialto

Johnny Depp plays American photojournalist W. Eugene Smith in Minamata. Picture: Rialto

The engaging actor Bill Nighy appears as Smith's boss at Life magazine, Robert Hayes, also a real character. Against type, it's a different role for Bill, but he looks comfortable in it.

Early in the 1970s, Smith relocated with his American partner, Aileen Mioko (Minami, a sweet presence), to Minamata village to document what was happening and tell the world.

Chisso Corporation had been pouring mercury in wastewater from its plant into the sea around Minamata from 1932. Many villagers had succumbed to a neurological disease that was known as "dancing cat disease" and eventually became known as Minamata disease. The horrific symptoms of the condition could begin in the womb. Smith's photo-essay documenting the victims of Minamata eventually became a sensation, in particular the iconic black-and-white image of Tomoko Uemura in Her Bath. Mighty Chisso was compelled to compensate, and the company president knelt in a public apology.

This is the second feature from writer-director Andrew Levitas, who is a New York-based actor and artist across multiple platforms. Add university professor, actor, and environmental philanthropist and you get the full picture.

The character that Depp inhabits does not feel entirely unfamiliar - an ageing, jazz-loving hipster holed up in a darkroom in a New York loft with his addictions. He had to deal with the PTSD that was the result of his wartime experience.

A highly regarded doco on Minamata was made by Noriaki Tsuchimoto in Japan in 1971. It was called Minamata: The Victims and Their World.

Is the terrible saga an American story to tell, complete with Americans to the rescue? It's possible to argue this point, but Smith suffered in Minamata too. For his "interference", he was beaten up by the yakuza whom Chisso used to protect its interests in the village.

Casting Depp, still mired in law suits with his former wife, was perhaps a gamble. Yet the huge Minamata story about corporate avoidance of civic responsibility is a far greater story than that.

This story Depp shines in story of suffering first appeared on The Canberra Times.