Evil Does Not Exist’s director unpacks its strange, controversial ending

Evil Does Not Exist’s director unpacks its strange, controversial ending

You don’t even have to watch Ryûsuke Hamaguchi’s Evil Does Not Exist to consider it a conversation-starter: The debate begins with that title, a bold, unlikely statement that may feel at odds with most experiences of the world. Watching the movie complicates that response even further, given some of the choices its characters make, and the harm they bring to others. And then there’s that abrupt, surprising ending, the kind that will leave viewers arguing over what they actually saw on screen almost as much as they’re arguing about what it means.

Hamaguchi is no stranger to elliptical, unpackable, or discussable endings: His Best Picture Oscar nominee Drive My Car wraps with a long sequence where the audience is just watching the protagonist perform onstage in a multilingual production of Anton Chekhov’s Uncle Vanya, followed by a wordless sequence of another character going about mundane tasks. There’s a great deal of meaning there, but it takes thought, time, and attention to the film’s 179-minute length to access. Evil Does Not Exist is shorter and tighter, but it still centers on a 20-minute scene where residents of a small community politely raise objections about a planned luxury development in the area.

What is Hamaguchi getting at with Evil Does Not Exist? From its title to its mysterious opening tracking shot to that what’s-going-on-here? ending, Polygon had a lot of questions about the movie. Speaking through a translator, we sat down with Hamaguchi to unpack the film.

[Ed. note: End spoilers ahead for Evil Does Not Exist.]

First: on the ending Evil Does Not Exist

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Evil Does Not Exist centers on a small rural village, Mizubiki, that’s about to be disrupted by developers building a site for luxury camping, or “glamping.” At a town-hall meeting, the locals object, and their thoughtful, thorough analysis of the project’s flaws impresses the presenters, Takahashi (Ryuji Kosaka) and Mayuzumi (Ayaka Shibutani). But when they share the objections with their boss, they learn he doesn’t actually care about making the project sustainable or even profitable. He just cares about the pandemic-era development grants he’ll earn if he gets the proposal in ahead of a deadline.

Takahashi and Mayuzumi connect with Takumi (Hitoshi Omika), a widower and odd-job man in Mizubiki, who’s raising a young daughter, Hana (Ryo Nishikawa), on his own. Takumi is a quiet man who’s closely connected with nature, and Takahashi envies him and wants to move out to Mizubiki and live in nature himself. But then Hana goes missing, and the town rallies to find her. Takahashi and Takumi are together when they find her lying in a field, where she’s been attacked by a wounded deer. Takumi suddenly turns on Takahashi and brutally strangles him, then grabs Hana’s body and runs. Takahashi gets up and stumbles across the field, then falls again and lies still.

Is Takahashi dead? Is Hana dead? Hamaguchi says he wants to leave those things up to interpretation, to invite people to discuss the ending and what it means. “In order to be able to make this happen, I think two things are necessary,” he told Polygon. “The first part is to end in this abrupt manner, almost leaving the audience behind. But that in itself, I don’t think is enough to create conversations and create different interpretations. It really relies on what the characters do up until that point.”

Why does Takumi attack Takahashi in Evil Does Not Exist?

Takumi (Hitoshi Omika) walks through high, yellowing grass near the side of a forest with his young daughter Hana (Ryo Nishikawa) in Ryûsuke Hamaguchi’s Evil Does Not Exist Image: Sideshow and Janus Films

To some degree, the end of the film is foreshadowed in something Takumi tells his city visitors during the film: Deer aren’t ordinarily dangerous to humans, but a gutshot deer will lash out violently, particularly to protect its young. This is what happened to Hana: In what appears to be either a flashback or Takumi’s quick mental reconstruction when he sees her lying in the field, we see that she encountered a pair of deer, one of which had been shot. She attempted to approach them, and the wounded deer attacked her.

In the same way, Takumi is symbolically a “gutshot deer.” He’s metaphorically wounded, both by the imminent destruction of his community and the natural world around him by predatory outsiders, and by the hurt done to his daughter, in part because of his own neglect. As we learn early in the movie, Takumi was sometimes a unreliable father: Hana is only out in the woods alone because she’s taken to walking home from school by herself, since he didn’t always remember to pick her up from school. Like the deer, Takumi lashes out irrationally, not at the source of his pain, but at the nearest available target.

“I do think he’s acting out of desperation,” Hamaguchi says. “In that moment, I think he does realize in [seeing Hana’s body] that he’s not able to be the kind of father he maybe wanted to be. And I think there are certain clues within the film where we see that.”

While Takumi’s behavior may seem extreme and difficult to understand, Hamaguchi hopes viewers will go back and watch the movie again, and see how his response fits in with other behavior we’ve seen from him.

“What I hope I’m achieving is that people feel that each character that appears in the film all have their own individual lives,” he says. “The way they act and what we see in the film are just moments that the cameras happened to capture, of life they each live outside of the film. And once people can feel that these characters actually do exist, then when we see them do something that is not quite understandable, the audience can still feel it’s still possible that they could do these things.”

He considers the movie’s ending an invitation to analyze and sit with the story: “When this kind of ending happens, I feel it causes the audience to reflect back on what they experienced before that, to rethink what they just watched, and to reflect upon whether their worldview of what they just saw is in was in fact correct,” he says. “That effect to me is a very interesting way to experience a film, and can result in a lot of interpretations. And so if that’s what it is doing, then I’m very grateful.”

Why would Takumi respond to grief by trying to murder a near-stranger?

Mayuzumi (Ayaka Shibutani), a Japanese woman in a white shirt and grey cardigan, stands in the woods, looking downward at the camera, in Ryûsuke Hamaguchi’s Evil Does Not Exist Image: Sideshow and Janus Films

In terms of understanding Takumi’s attack, Hamaguchi suggests looking back at his 2018 movie Asako I & II, about a woman who falls for two physically identical men (played by the same actor) with radically different personas, and has to decide which one to stay with. “In that, a protagonist also makes choices,” Hamaguchi says. “And I think from the perspective of the wider society in which she lives, perhaps the choice she makes can be viewed as a bad choice. But I think from her perspective, it was the only choice she could make.”

He says the decision helps Asako see herself more clearly, and learn more about what she values. “It’s my perspective of living and the worldview that I have in some ways,” he says. “I think there are moments in our lives where we suddenly understand something about ourselves through the choices we just made.”

Similarly, Hamaguchi says that when Takumi sees Hana lying in the field, he understands where his own choices have led. “I think in that moment, he realizes through the failures he has had,” he says. “That leads him to try to figure out desperately about what to do. That action might be read as absurd from the surroundings, or from people around him. But I think to me, this choice that he makes is something that for this particular character, could happen.”

Put another way: Takumi has been a passive, quiet character throughout the process of the development plan, to the point where Takahashi and Mayuzumi try to hire him as a liaison with the community, a manager for the site who could also quell local tensions. In attacking Takahashi, he’s violently pushing back against the idea that he could be drawn to take their side against his community’s. He’s also defending his territory from outsiders, as a wild animal might. And like a wild animal, he’s acting without thinking about the consequences, or even about whether that action might plausibly achieve his goals. But that’s just one interpretation.

What does the title of Evil Does Not Exist mean?

Takumi (Hitoshi Omika) carries his young daughter Hana (Ryo Nishikawa) through a snowy forest on a piggyback ride in an extreme long shot in Ryûsuke Hamaguchi’s Evil Does Not Exist Image: Sideshow and Janus Films

Evil Does Not Exist was originally planned as a wordless 30-minute short film, a visual accompaniment for new music by Eiko Ishibashi, who also composed the score for Drive My Car. But Hamaguchi says her music and his location scouting inspired the story of the film — and the title came before that story was locked down.

“Before writing the script, when I was thinking about what I could shoot, I went out to where Eiko Ishibashi makes her music,” he says. “She makes her music amongst this very rich natural landscape. It was winter when I was there, and when I looked out into the winter landscape, these words popped up. I thought, OK, it’s very cold right now. Standing here, I feel like I’m going to freeze to death. And yet it’s not that I feel any evil intentions here.

Hamaguchi says part of that insight came from living in an urban environment, where it’s rare to be far away from other people. The isolated community in Evil Does Not Exist lives far away from that kind of constant engagement, and the people in that community are often alone in nature — which can be a dangerous environment, but not a purposefully or consciously inimical one. As the film’s story developed, Hamaguchi added characters that do live in urban environments, and do act in deliberately harmful ways, but he kept the title throughout. “Looking back at the film that we had made,” he says, “it made me think that watching this particular film against this title is probably an interesting experience together.”

But doesn’t the developer bringing chaos to a community for profit act in an evil way? “I think it’s actually a very difficult question to answer properly,” Hamaguchi says. “Say for now, we say that there is no evil in nature. Then the question becomes, Is human society not natural? I think we can say humans are a part of nature. But I think what’s also true about humans is that there might be more choices available.

“We can reflect back on our choices and say, I should have chosen this way or I should have chosen this or that, and sometimes make these decisions of whether those are good or bad choices. As human beings, when we’re living our lives, sometimes we think something is bad, or something was a bad choice. But when you interpret this as desire, I think you can also see that was part of nature as well. This is just how I honestly feel at the current moment.”

Why Evil Does Not Exist opens on a four-minute tracking shot of a camera looking up at trees

Hana (Ryo Nishikawa), a young Japanese girl in a puffy coat and knit hat, shades her eyes with her hand and looks doubtfully into the camera in Ryûsuke Hamaguchi’s Evil Does Not Exist Image: Sideshow and Janus Films

While the opening of Evil Does Not Exist doesn’t seem like it’d offer much inside on the ending, it actually ties directly into Hamaguchi’s point about perspective, understanding, and the natural world.

“That particular perspective that we see at the beginning is a perspective that only a camera can manage to capture,” he says. “Because as human beings, even if you look up and keep looking, it’s not possible to have your point of axis not moving, the way it does within that tracking shot. To be seeing that, with [the camera moving at] a very steady speed […] this vision is not necessarily a vision humans can have.

“And I think through watching through this perspective, this vision for four minutes, my hope was that the people who are looking can acquire a slightly different way of perceiving, or a different way of thinking. Perhaps it’s closer to how a machine sees, or perhaps how nature sees. This is something that I wouldn’t know. But I think the fact that we, the audience, can acquire a different way of looking, perhaps, can lead the audience into understanding the rest of the film in a deeper level. And that’s why I wanted to start the film in that way.”

Evil Does Not Exist is in theaters now.