Friday September 18, 1998
In the pre-credit sequence of Shohei Imamura's unpredictable and captivating "The Eel" ("Unagi") a perfectly ordinary-looking Japanese office worker ("Shall We Dance?'s" Koji Yakusho, ideally cast) receives anonymous letters outlining his wife's infidelity while he's off on nighttime fishing expeditions. Deliberately coming home early, he catches her with her lover, and, seized with rage, knifes her to death and immediately heads for the nearest police station to turn himself in.
Once past the credits, we learn that eight years have passed. Yakusho's Yamashita emerges from prison with a few personal possessions, plus an eel that became his pet. He's fortunate in his parole officer (Fujio Tsuneta), a kindly priest whose hometown, a sleepy port village, is where Yamashita will start a new life as a barber. Tormented by nightmares yet not really regretting his crime of passion, Yamashita asks only to live in obscurity with his eel, with whom he can carry on a one-sided conversation, thus avoiding anything he doesn't want to hear. Yamashita fits in the small community quite well, and his life proceeds just as uneventfully as he wishes.
Of course, this idyll, as emotionally desolate as it is for Yamashita, cannot last--there would be no movie otherwise. Two things happen: A beautiful but troubled young woman, Keiko (Misa Shimizu), who resembles his late wife, arrives in town, and a garbage collector (Akira Emoto), crude and drunken, turns out to be an ex-con poised to let the community know the truth about its new barber.
Imamura now has in place all the elements for a conventional melodrama, but it's what he does with them that won "The Eel" Cannes' Palme d'Or last year. For 40 years Imamura has been, as a critic once observed, expressing sympathy for "the primitive in the blue serge suit." In films such as "The Insect Woman" (1963), "The Profound Desire of the Gods" (1968), "Vengeance Is Mine" (1979) and many others, Imamura has explored an individual's deep-seated emotional conflicts with his traditional culture.
Yamashita is horrified at himself to the point of numbness for having murdered his wife and desiring nothing more than emotional isolation. Then along comes Keiko, a woman at once desirable and beset with problems. Typical of the film's unexpectedness is that the ex-con, while a potential source of big trouble, is the individual who tells Yamashita that it's folly for him to deny his capacity for jealousy.
Photographed expressively by Shigeru Komatsubara, "The Eel" is a quieter, more episodic and less driving film than many of Imamura's finest, including his devastating anti-nuclear film, "Black Rain" (1989), a highly personal account of America's atomic bombings and their aftermath. Keyed by Shinichiro Ikebe's beguiling score, as varied in mood as "The Eel" is itself, the film also embraces rowdy, even comical sequences, again unexpected yet typical of the idiosyncratic Imamura. They work beautifully, as Imamura's mastery of tone has always matched his capacity for compassion and acuteness of observation.
Now that Akira Kurosawa is gone, there is no question that Imamura, along with Masahiro Shinoda and Nagisa Oshima, are heirs to Kurosawa's position as Japan's leading veteran director.
The Eel, 1998. Unrated. A New Yorker Films of a Shochiku Films presentation of a Cinema Japanesque-Kiss-Eisei Gekijo Co., Ltd.-Groove Corp. production in associations with Imamura Productions. Director Shohei Imamura. Producer Hisa Jino. Screenplay by Motofumi Tomikawa, Daisuke Tengan and Imamura; based on a story by Akira Yoshimura. Cinematographer Shigeru Komatsubara. Editor Hajime Okayasu. Music Shinichiro Ikebe. In Japanese, with English subtitles. Running time: 1 hour, 56 minutes. Koji Yakusho as Takuro Yamashita. Misa Shimizu as Keiko Hattori. Fujio Tsuneta as Jiro Nakajima, the priest. Akira Emoto as Tamotsu Takahashi.