In The Eel, which won the Palme d'Or at the 1997 Cannes International Film Festival, director Shohei Imamura once again demonstrates his empathy for the outsiders and aliens of Japanese society. In this case he muses on the tormented relationship between a paroled wife-murderer who is struggling with his past after eight years in jail, and an emotionally battered young woman who has just attempted suicide. It is a beautiful and profound piece of work by a wonderful filmmaker at the peak of his powers.
As in the few other Imamura films that have made their way across the Pacific to this country, what's most important in The Eel occurs just below its deceptively placid surface of lovely rural rivers and color-drenched fields of flowers: the strain of guilt on a man who cannot bring himself to regret his crime of passion, and the deep-seated secrets of a woman whose romantic and familial missteps have compelled her to reinvent herself. The mild ex-convict Takuro Yamashita (Koji Yakusho) and the needy woman Keiko Hattori (Misa Shimizu), who bears an uncanny resemblance to the unfaithful wife he stabbed to death, develop a bond so fragile, yet so vital, that it puts mere movie romance to shame.
American audiences fell for actor Yakusho when he played the repressed suburbanite who frees his spirit through the fox trot in 1997's Shall We Dance? He's even more impressive here in a role that could serve as an emotional companion piece: Takuro is so bent on detachment that he converses, for the most part, only with the pet eel he once kept in the prison pond and has now transferred to a barren aquarium that suggests the very state of his mind. "He listens to what I say," Takuro says of the fish. "And he doesn't say what I don't want to hear." Still, Takuro cannot remain in his fortress forever.
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While the late master Akira Kurosawa is revered by American film buffs, Imamura remains virtually unknown here, though he's been making movies since 1958. Of special note: his previous Cannes grand-prize winner, 1982's The Ballad of Narayama. For my money it is one of Japan's greatest films. In the story of a village where the elderly are left to die on a sacred mountaintop, Imamura explores the tension, as he always must, between the ingrown rituals and the contemporary disturbances of his homeland.
It is not without significance then, that the troubled souls in The Eel, so emblematic of Japan's current spiritual woes, find refuge of a sort in two very different places: the ancient temple where Takuro's kindly parole officer lives, and the barbershop where Takuro intends to live out his days, alter people's appearances, and protect his terrible secret. That cannot last for long, of course. Along with a fascinating cast of locals, including a farmer obsessed with UFOs and a fisherman who professes to understand the inner life of eels, old ghosts from Takuro and Keiko's pasts materialize to upset their equilibrium.
Dreaming that he's adrift in the eel's aquarium, Imamura's tortured hero recalls his wife: "I died along with her," he laments. And that might prove true if not for the intervention of a wise and merciful filmmaker who has long been in concert with the human comedy.
Written and directed by Shohei Imamura. Starring Koji Yakusho and Misa Shimizu.