Directed by Shohei Imamura
Written by Imamura, Motofumi Tomikawa and Daisuke Tengan
With Koji Yakusho, Misa Shimizu, Fujio Tsuneta, Mitsuko Baisho and Akira Emoto
Distributed by New Yorker Films
The Imamura retrospective that THE EEL follows on the heels of was one of this year's major opportunities to see the work of a great director in all of its grandeur, as well as its flaws. The main flaw of the Imamura oeuvre lies in its unevenness. His talents as a storyteller lag behind his talents as a visual stylist; consequently, many of his films feel overly long. (Few of them are shorter than 2 hours.) Perhaps he's trying to match the wild energy and inability or incapacity to fit in of his characters; either way, there are definite bits of dross in almost all of his films. Nevertheless, their high points rank with the high points of Japanese (indeed, world) cinema. The early PIGS AND BATTLESHIPS is an over-the-top B-movie that gives American movies like KISS ME DEADLY and SHOCK CORRIDOR a run for their money. And he has an amazing ability for crafting scary, brutal images (the shamanic possession ritual in THE PROFOUND DESIRE OF THE GODS, the first two murders in VENGEANCE IS MINE - worthy of Kieslowski's A SHORT FILM ABOUT KILLING, the shocking scene in BALLAD OF NARAYAMA which an elderly woman bashes her teeth out against a table) that don't leave your head for days. The murder that takes place near the beginning of THE EEL is one of these.
In plot outline, THE EEL resembles a Western, complete with a violent man searching for redemption among a community of isolated loners and a narrative building inexorably towards a showdown. Takuro Yamashita, (Koji Yakusho) the protagonist of THE EEL is a seemingly ordinary, orderly businessman whose life seems to be going smoothly. All of this falls to pieces when he receives a note informing him that his wife has been cheating on him when he goes on all-night fishing trips. He returns early from one of his trips, only to find out that his wife is indeed in bed with another man. Torn with rage, he stabs her and then turns himself into the police.
Eight years later, he's released from prison and moves to a small town , in the company of a Buddhist priest who serves as his parole officer and his pet eel, with which he holds conversations. After checking out an abandoned barbershop, he finds his calling. However, he remains aloof from the other townspeople (including a man obsessed with fishing, a UFO nut who builds his own crop circles and landing pads, and a suicidal young woman, Keiko (Misa Shimizu), who resembles his wife) and ashamed to reveal his violent past. But gradually, he becomes more and more involved with the life of the town. The turning point comes when he discovers Keiko in the grass, after having OD'd on sleeping pills in a suicide attempt. She recovers and comes to work at his barber shop.
Imamura has always been fascinated by the animal side of humanity (he loves close-ups of animals, although he uses them sparingly in THE EEL), especially in a society in which everyone is expected to follow the rules and hide their emotions. There's always been a sociological, even entomological (THE INSECT WOMAN is subtitled "A Study Of Entomology") side to his work, and a fascination with what happens when this animal side can't be contained any more. In other films, he's indulged this fascination in the context of the "primitive" Japan of the past and/or countryside. Here, he brings it to the context of middle-class 'salaryman" life in contemporary urban Japan. As the press kit puts it, "Imamura indulges in his famed fascination with the havoc wrought when traditional Japanese values collide with man's primal instincts." Yamashita is a sort of test case, an outwardly calm man plagued by impulses towards brutal jealousy. When released from prison, he's both ashamed and afraid of these impulses, which he can only contain by avoiding emotional contact with other people. The film goes on to investigate the consequences of his gradual forced immersion back into society. It doesn't have any answers to the question of how he can became "civilized" again, but it suggests that behaving violently out of a sense of justice, even if these actions only get Yamashita into further trouble, is preferable to striking out in blind rage.
The Palme D'or that THE EEL won in 1997 Cannes can only set up expectations of an 8-years-in-the-making masterpiece that this modest film can't really fulfill. As is typical for Imamura, it feels too long, and there's a subplot involving an old prison acquaintance of Yamashita's that goes nowhere. But it's an oddly touching film, one that accumulates pathos gradually instead of drawing it out with any particular scene. Despite THE EEL's flaws, it's great to have Imamura back and to have a chance to see where he can go from here. His latest film has already played this spring's Cannes festival, so we should have a chance to see his next step soon.