It’s not hard to see how Dylann Roof identified with the sullen 14-year-old knife-wielding protagonist of Himizu, the 2011 Japanese crime pic the Charleston shooter called his “favorite” film in a hate crime manifesto filled with dubious falsehoods and rantings cribbed from white supremacist groups.
Whether or not he fully understood the movie is another matter.
In Himizu, a loner beaten down by circumstance and neglected by his own abusive parents wants nothing more than to be left alone to live an ordinary life, operating his family’s run-down boathouse. Abandoned by his mother, bullied relentlessly by his deadbeat alcoholic father, and visited by Yakuza thugs, he snaps one day and bludgeons Dad to death with a concrete block.
The psychotic break sends the tortured teen into a tailspin of self-loathing vigilantism, yielding Roof’s favorite quote: “To take a saying from my favorite film,” Roof wrote on his website, “‘Even if my life is worth less than a speck of dirt, I want to use it for the good of society.’”
In the film that line’s spoken by the brooding Sumida, who wrestles with his patricide by embarking on a mission to rid the poisoned world of evildoers—the only course of moral atonement he sees, short of surrendering or killing himself.
“It’s May 7, the first day of the rest of my life. No police, no suicide… I guess I’m stingier than I figured,” he murmurs into a tape recorder before delivering the now-infamous “speck of dirt” line.
His face caked in a mask of paint, Sumida wanders the city streets toting a butcher knife looking for victims. “I must have been born to do some good,” he says in voice-over. “I’ll kill idiots who trouble citizens.”
Along the way he crosses paths with other knife-wielding crazies even more broken by society than he is. But his attempts to get blood absolution fail at every turn. He fails to kill anyone, though his blade helps stop a few psychos, including a man who stabs a woman for suggesting he give up his bus seat to a pregnant lady. “Let me kill him!” an anguished Sumida screams as strangers hold him back.
Eventually, Sumida’s deranged “sickness” is salved by the persistent, masochistic love of a classmate with psycho parents of her own—and the ragtag bunch of displaced neighbors he allows to live in ramshackle tents on his property. Clarity comes as he learns, by heart, a poem by Francois Villon (“I know death who devours all/I know everything but myself”), the 15th-century French vagabond-poet who himself once stabbed and stoned a man to death and later earned a pardon for his crime.
Prolific provocateur-auteur Sion Sono (Cold Fish, Love Exposure, Tokyo Tribe) adapted Himizu from the manga of the same name but made one vital, timely change. After the devastating Tōhoku earthquake and tsunami rocked Japan on March 11, 2011, killing over 15,000 and displacing and traumatizing thousands more, Sono wrote the national tragedy into his script and filmed scenes among its ruins. As a result, Himizu is at once a film about the sins of past generations wreaking havoc on the future, and a condemnation of Japan’s historically violent relationship with nuclear power. Not the most likely fave film of an American white supremacist millennial, to say the least.
Roof, in his many racist rantings against African Americans, Jews, and Latinos, seems to give the Japanese a pass. But he clearly also misses the point of films like Himizu, which use violence and angst to highlight characters in need of help, not glory. Lauded by critics upon its Venice Film Festival premiere mere months after the Fukushima disaster, Himizu’s moral compass clearly points toward hopefulness instead of hatred.
Coincidentally, Himizu features a subplot involving the robbery of a Japanese neo-Nazi gangster whose apartment is adorned with a swastika flag; maybe this was Dylann Roof’s unlikely entry into Japanese arthouse cinema. In his online manifesto the 21-year-old killer also selectively referenced American History X and Romper Stomper—much more well-known films about white supremacist characters, whose hateful lives don’t end well—but clearly didn’t understand those cautionary tales, either.
Himizu is available to stream online.