"The Eel," Shohei Imamura's gentle adaptation of a novel by the Japanese writer Akira Yoshimura, presents such a radical departure from the sound and fury peddled by most American films that it may initially strike filmgoers as soporifically languid. But audiences who stick with it will find themselves lulled into the sweetest kind of torpor, where the most intrusive sound effect is the hypnotic lapping of undulating water.
What's more, "The Eel," which won the 1997 Palme d'Or at the Cannes Film Festival and opens today at the Orpheum in Fells Point, provides more than its share of psychological insight into responsibility, redemption and making peace with imperfection.
Takuro Yamashita (Koji Yakusho) is a "salary man," a faceless, nameless company worker in a mid-sized Japanese city, whose existence in no way challenges the conformist tendencies of society. That all changes one evening, though, when he discovers his wife in the midst of an indiscretion. He kills her and her lover -- in a particularly florid bloodbath -- and is sent to prison.
Eight years later, he is released into the custody of a Buddhist priest (Fujio Tsuneta), sets up shop as a barber in a small coastal town and begins to rebuild his life.
But certain habits are hard to break: Yamashita is haunted by his late wife and his act of passion, and he still hangs on to the regimental rituals of prison. He has even held on to the eel he kept as a pet there. Even as Yamashita makes new friends, who begin to hang out at his barber shop for comforting small-town chit-chat, he still seems a prisoner of his old life until he meets a mysterious young woman named Keiko (Misa Shimizu). As the paths and pasts of these two lost souls collide, a new future for both of them finally seems possible.
Most filmgoers will instantly recognize Yakusho as the handsome star of the wonderful "Shall We Dance?" and this broodingly charismatic actor once again makes his character come alive with very few words and even fewer gestural demonstrations. He makes the perfect leading man for Imamura, who trained with the legendary director Yasuhiro Ozu and continues the master's eloquent use of framing.
Rarely resorting to Hollywood-style close-ups, Imamura instead photographs his actors in their rooms and houses, thus providing loads of detail and context with relatively no exposition. Like Ozu, he likes to use doorways and windows as interior framing devices, a point of view at once pictorially lovely and touchingly discreet.
Such discretion is altogether appropriate to the story of Yamashita, whose painful journey out of the past is often quietly excruciating.
The story of "The Eel" doesn't hold that many surprises, and a few characters -- like Keiko's garish, disturbed mother and Yamashita's UFO-obsessed pal -- seem like intrusive devices in an otherwise organically flowing piece. A fight scene in the barber shop interrupts Imamura's flow in a similarly jarring way.
But these are tiny interruptions in a movie that will otherwise hold viewers in a soothing embrace. Thanks to Imamura's lyrical storytelling and Yakusho's understated presence, "The Eel" surfaces as a tale of unexpected emotional power.
Starring Koji Yakusho, Misa Shimizu, Fujio Tsuneta
Directed by Shohei Imamura
Released by New Yorker Films
Running time 117 minutes
Sun score: *** Pub Date: 2/22/99