Johnny Depp to Star as W. Eugene Smith in “Minamata”

“Minamata” will tell the story of its namesake Japanese city and how war photographer W. Eugene Smith told the harrowing story of the disease that plagued it.

Johnny Depp is set to become the reel-life counterpart of renowned war photographer W. Eugene Smith in an upcoming independent film “Minamata.” The drama will be about the Japanese coastal town of Minamata, in Kumamoto Prefecture, and the severe mercury poisoning disease that affected it.

Central to “Minamata” is the true story of Smith after his stint as a World War II photographer, and his role in bringing world attention to the Minamata disease caused by a chemical company through his dramatic photo essay. Under the commission of Life Magazine editor Ralph Graves, Smith traveled to Japan and lived in Minamata with his wife Aileen Mioko from 1971 to 1973, and extensively covered the disease. His efforts led to numerous magazine articles, exhibits, and a book. While he took thousands of photographs, the centerpiece and most striking photo from this body of work was Tomoko Uemura in Her Bath, which dramatically showed the terrible effects of the disease.

For the curious or uninitiated, Smith’s Magnum portfolio houses his photos from Minamata, which includes heartbreaking images of the victims’ condition. His iconic photo of Tomoko Uemura, however, was withdrawn from publication beginning in 1997, at the wishes of the Uemura family.

The film is based on the book of the same title by Mioko and Smith, adapted by David K. Kessler. It’s also developed by Depp’s production company Infinitum Nihil, produced by Sam Sarkar and Bill Johnson, and will be produced-directed by Andrew Levitas. No word yet as to when the movie will come out, but reports say that it will begin principal production in Japan, then in Serbia in January.

Photo by ENNIO LEANZA/EPA-EFE/REX/SHUTTER via VARIETY