A wild deer with a hunter’s bullet in its belly may attack a human, no matter how mild its nature normally. This is one of the droplets of woodland wisdom dispensed by the otherwise taciturn Takumi (Hitoshi Omika), the woodcutter, water-gatherer and all-round odd-job-man of Mizubiki village, the setting of “Drive My Car” director Ryusuke Hamaguchi’s meditative and moving, yet ultimately unsettling new feature. Takumi’s few words all relate to such matters: the flow of a stream, the thorns on a Siberian Ginseng, the tang of wild wasabi. They are pastoral litanies as spartan and lilting as “Evil Does not Exist” itself, right until a last-minute reversal calls its strange title back to mind and into question. Even if evil does not exist in this peaceful, bucolic community, injustice and animal instinct certainly do.

From the outset indicating the centrality of composer Eiko Ishibashi’s score, we are drawn into the film with a long musical excerpt, only accompanied by fluid tracking shot, looking upward: a tracery of tree branches, feathered out against a winter sky. The music is surprising, changeable, moving from twangy electric guitar to lush symphonic layers (“Gift,” Hamaguchi’s next collaboration with Ishibashi, which is dialogue-free altogether and conceived almost as a music video, will premiere in October). Here the effect is beautifully restful — less an introduction than an overture — as though Hamaguchi is unstoppering a bottle of calming scent and inviting us to breathe deep. Then, as will happen often throughout, the score cuts out abruptly. We would do well to heed the warning of these blunt music edits, and their implicit foreshadowing effect: mood can lie. Everything ends, sometimes harshly.

Mizubiki is a community of just 6,000 people who live in symbiosis with their rural surroundings and Takumi exemplifies this rustic lifestyle. With intent, forensic interest, Yoshio Kitagawa’s unobtrusive camera observes him from a short distance, as he goes through what seem to be near-daily rituals: chopping firewood, collecting spring water for the local udon restaurant, and forgetting to pick up his little daughter Hana (Ryo Nishikawa) from school. Hana, a happy, wilful child often tramps home through the forest alone, until her father catches up with her, which is here revealed in an unshowily gorgeous shot of Takumi disappearing from view behind a hillock and emerging on the other side with Hana riding piggyback. 

But, situated close enough to Tokyo to be an easy drive yet far enough for its landscapes to feel light years from the capital’s skyscrapers and offices, Mizubiki makes an attractive potential tourist destination. Sure enough, a company called Playmode has acquired a package of land they’re anxious to develop for “glamorous camping” aka glamping — a concept so self-evidently inane that surely only late late-capitalism could have dreamt it up.

Two Playmode reps, Takahashi (Ryuji Kosaka) and Mayuzumi (Ayaka Shibutani) come to the village to present the development plans at a kind of town hall. They are politely dismantled, when Takumi describes the effect of the development on the quality of the local spring water, which the udon restaurant owner asserts is the very reason she moved from Tokyo in the first place. Another resident is worried by the potential for unsupervised campfires in their wildfire-prone region. The village chief talks of balance and responsibility, and a more pugnacious young local accuses Playmode of hastening the whole planning process in order to qualify for pandemic subsidies. A nervous evasion from Takahashi confirms he is right.

This fantastic scene is a superb snapshot of community solidarity meeting corporate stonewalling – it’s a small miracle that Hamaguchi manages to make the discussion of the location, capacity and efficiency of a septic tank into such absorbing drama. But it turns out neither Takahashi and Mayazumi are the heartless shills they might at first appear. When they return to the village with their boss’ limp compromise offer, they have already discussed, in one of those great, halting, rambling car conversations of which “Drive My Car” was made, how they are both sympathetic to the villagers, and how both are close to the end of their tether in their current jobs. Takahashi, emboldened by a single log-chopping achievement (there is light humor in how the city-dwellers are portrayed as inadequate in rustic pursuits), then resolves to shadow Takumi, learning all he knows about the woods, in order to maybe become the site’s caretaker himself.

This is a story made far more of details and textures than of grand actions. A photograph of Takumi and Hana with Hana’s mother implies an oceanic loss in Takumi’s silences. Hana has a habit of picking up feathers to give to the village chief, who makes them into quills to pluck at the strings of a harpsichord. At the restaurant, steaming bowls of noodles are assembled with pride and almost tea-ceremony ritual grace. Yet this image of rural life is not overly prettified, nor unduly invested in the idea that a traditional way of life is somehow inherently more virtuous than life in a city. Indeed, as Takumi points out, the villagers are hardly that much more “traditional” than the newcomers — the region was only designated for settling after the war.

So the composite image we build up from all these sedate, hypnotic fragments, is one of fundamentally decent people, moving in the right direction, flowing with the stream, caring to find common ground with each other and with the common ground itself — all this in spite of those broken music edits, and the occasional gunshot that thuds dully from a faraway hillside when a hunt is on. But then comes that utterly confounding, hard-to-parse ending. It’s rare that a film’s final scenes should so materially change the inflection of its meaning, as Hamaguchi suddenly swings “Evil Does Not Exist” away from its prior axis of cautious, melancholy optimism toward something far colder, wintrier and more fraught. It may not be wholly successful, but it certainly is bleakly fascinating to witness a master filmmaker paint so subtle and soothing a portrait of humanity, only to finally, bitterly remind us that there is no soothing nature – human or otherwise – when there’s a bullet in its belly.