Yes. The Minamata true story reveals that while working as a photojournalist in the Pacific Theater during WWII, W. Eugene 'Gene' Smith was seriously injured by mortar fire during the Battle of Okinawa. He also sustained injuries in two plane crashes. -MagnumPhotos.com
The disease was first identified in 1956 in the city of Minamata, Kumamoto Prefecture, Japan. It was the result of pollution from industrial wastewater released by a chemical factory owned by the Chisso Corporation. The wastewater was contaminated with inorganic mercury. When it came into contact with the anaerobic bacteria in the sediment in the bay and seabed, it was transformed into methylmercury, the most poisonous form of the metal, which was then absorbed by the plants. When the fish and shellfish in Minamata Bay ate the plants, methylmercury accumulated in their cells. As people and animals (including cats and crows) consumed the fish and shellfish, which was a normal part of their diet, they began to suffer from mercury poisoning.
Symptoms of the disease were first observed by residents of the area in cats and other wildlife starting around 1950. Residents observed cats having convulsions, acting erratic, and then dying (it was later determined this was from the methylmercury in the fish the cats were eating). This would eventually be dubbed "dancing cat fever." They also witnessed crows falling from the sky and dead fish floating on the surface of the sea. Fisheries in the area had seen reduced catches ever since the opening of the Chisso Corporation's Minamata chemical factory in 1908. By 1926, Chisso had reached a compensation agreement with the fishery cooperative. Another agreement was reached in 1943.
The first signs of Minamata disease in humans were indeed observed in children. On April 21, 1956, a five-year-old girl was seen by physicians at Chisso's factory hospital. She had been experiencing convulsions, as well as difficulty walking and speaking. Her younger sister began with the same puzzling symptoms two days later. She too was admitted to the hospital. After the same symptoms were identified in a neighbor's daughter, door-to-door examinations were carried out, which confirmed eight more cases. It was then that the hospital told the public health office that they had an unidentified epidemic on their hands, which affected the central nervous system. The human toll of the Minamata disaster was beginning to reveal itself.
Yes. The depiction early in the movie of Johnny Depp's character holed up in his apartment, estranged from his adult children, drinking heavily, and in debt, seems mostly accurate, albeit a little exaggerated when compared to the true story of W. Eugene Smith. Once a famed WWII photographer, by the early 1970s, it's true that he had found himself embracing resentment and self-pity, not to mention the bottle. However, in real life, he wasn't alone. He was living with Aileen at the time.
Yes. While conducting our fact check, we confirmed that Chisso Corporation not only downplayed their responsibility, in September 1958, they attempted to deflect scrutiny by rerouting their chemical factory's wastewater to flow directly into the Minamata River instead of Hyakken Harbour. The result was devastating, as a whole new area was now being affected by the Minamata environmental disaster. Dead fish immediately began to appear at the mouth of the river, and before long, new Minamata victims started to show up in villages along the coast of the Shiranui Sea, the body of water into which the river flows.
Yes. The Minamata true story confirms that Chisso withheld information about its industrial processes. It also withheld the results of some of its own tests that confirmed its factory was responsible. Making it all worse was the fact that the Japanese government, along with other organizations, had a vested interest in seeing that Chisso's chemical factory remained up and running. Some of these organizations went as far as to fund research into alternative causes of Minamata disease in an effort to deflect the blame from the Chisso plant's wastewater.
Hair samples were taken from both people suffering from the disease and from those in the area who were showing no symptoms. What researchers discovered was that victims of Minamata disease had mercury levels that were more than 100 times that of an average citizen living in the rest of Japan. A person who didn't live in the area would typically have a mercury level of 4 parts per million (ppm). The highest recorded mercury level in a Minamata victim was 705 ppm. Asymptomatic residents in the area had mercury levels as high as 191 ppm.
Yes. As victims of Minamata disease suffered and fought for compensation, others in the community took offense and feared that the company that employed them was being confronted with economic ruin. Chisso Corporation had been more willing to compensate the fisheries than the victims, namely because the fisheries were in a stronger position and had a louder voice as part of the Minamata Fishing Cooperative. For some victims, the fear of being ostracized outweighed the fear of the disease itself, so they remained silent. Others risked ostracization and attended a sit-in at the factory gates.
Yes. A Minamata fact check confirms that not everyone looked favorably upon photojournalist W. Eugene Smith's effort to help the Minamata victims and bring worldwide attention to the environmental disaster. In a response to documenting their struggle through staggering black and white photos like Tomoko Uemura in Her Bath, his defining image, Gene, then 54, was brutally attacked by Chisso Corporation goons on January 7, 1972. The attack was part of an effort to stop him from continuing to reveal the victims' suffering to the world. The attack happened when Gene and his wife Aileen were covering a meeting at a Chisso factory in Goi, Ichihara city, an hour or so outside of Tokyo.
"They pulled my hair and other reporters got knocked around, but they were heading for Gene," Aileen recalls. The assault left Gene severely injured with permanent damage to his sight in one eye. The nerve that ran from his finger to his neck had been crushed, resulting in temporary blindness in one eye and blackouts when he lifted his arm. He suffered from intense pain and even once told Aileen to grab an axe and split his head open to end his suffering. However, the beating didn't stop him from continuing to photograph the victims and their struggle. During the period when he couldn't lift his arm to snap the photos, he utilized a cable release that he could pull with his mouth. -MagnumPhotos.com
Yes. Gene and Aileen's photos helped to bring worldwide media attention and awareness to the Minamata victims' suffering. This in turn also helped to raise funds for the victims' lawsuit. Prior to being published in Gene and Aileen's 1975 book Minamata: The Story of the Poisoning of a City, and of the People Who Choose to Carry the Burden of Courage, the photos had been published in LIFE Magazine in 1972. The verdict in the nearly four-year-long trial was finally handed down on March 20, 1973. It declared a complete victory for the victims in the litigation group (another group had chosen to go the route of arbitration, with significantly less success).
The government finally started cleaning up Minamata Bay in 1977, but the water wouldn't be considered safe until 1997.
In researching the Minamata true story, we learned that of the 2,265 people who were officially verified as having the disease, as of March 2001, 1,784 had died. However, it is believed that many victims remain unverified.
As stated earlier, W. Eugene Smith separated from his second wife, Aileen Mioko Smith, and lived with a new partner, Sherry Suris, in New York City. He was then offered an opportunity to teach in the Art Department and Department of Journalism at the University of Arizona. He and Sherry moved to Tucson in 1977, but his time at his new job was rather short-lived. He suffered a massive stroke in December of that year. He recovered and kept teaching until a second stroke led to his death on October 15, 1978.