Thursday, March 7, 2013

The Best Movies I Have Never Seen Before: The Eel (1997)

The Eel (1997)
Directed by: Shôhei Imamura.
Written by: Shôhei Imamura & Daisuke Tengan & Motofumi Tomikawa & Akira Yoshimura based on the novel by Yoshimura.
Starring: Kôji Yakusho (Takuro Yamashita), Misa Shimizu (Keiko Hattori), Mitsuko Baishô (Misako Nakajima), Akira Emoto (Tamotsu Takasaki),  Fujio Tokita (Jiro Nakajima), Shô Aikawa (Yuji Nozawa), Ken Kobayashi (Masaki Saito), Sabu Kawahara (Seitaro Misato), Etsuko Ichihara (Fumie Hattori), Tomorowo Taguchi (Eiji Dojima), Chiho Terada (Emiko Yamashita).

Shohei Imamura got his start as an assistant director to the great Yashijiro Ozu, and yet when he started to make his own films, they couldn’t possibly be more different than his former boss’. Ozu’s films are extremely controlled. His shots last minutes at a time and his camera never moves. His films are about families, who are never quite able to tell each other what they are thinking and feeling. And they are heartbreaking in their simplicity. Imamura’s films on the other hand are messy and bursting with life, death and violence. He isn’t interested in perfection like Ozu, but in something more primal. His 1997 film, The Eel, won the Palme D’Or at Cannes, and although I do not think it’s quite a great film, it is certainly an interesting one.

The film opens in 1988, with office drone Takuro Yamashita coming home to discover his wife having sex with another man. He pulls out a knife and brutally murders her, letting the lover escape, and then calmly bikes to the police station, in his blood splattered yellow rain slicker to turn himself in. Flash forward 8 years, and Yamashita is being released from prison. He seems to have been a model prisoner, so the guards even let him take the pet eel he kept all those years inside at the prison pond. Trained as a barber in prison, he opens up a small barbershop in a nearly deserted suburb of Tokyo. The local Buddhist Priest is his parole officer, and he tells no one about his past. Although business is slow, and everyone looks at Yamashita strangely for keeping a pet eel, he quickly becomes a part of this small town. Especially once Keiko (Misa Shimizu) starts working there. She is a friend of the Priest’s, who came to this small town to kill herself. Yamashita found her and alerted authorities and saved her life. Now, she wants to repay him. She looks a lot like his wife, and he remains closed off emotionally towards her – only allowing himself to open up and talk to the eel. Then a figure from his past, and another from hers, both show up and throw things into chaos.

I have heard The Eel compared to the films of John Ford, and I really cannot think of a better comparison. Imamura’s portrait of this small town has the same sort of feel as Ford films like The Quiet Man, about an American returning to the small Irish village of his ancestors. Although the subject matter of The Eel appears to be dark, Imamura actually finds quite a bit of comedy in his characters and their surroundings. He has not made a deadly serious film about a disturbed murderer who talks to an eel. He has made a more thoughtful film about a man who has shut himself off from the world, afraid of getting hurt, who trusts the eel not to betray him like so many others have. Through his relationships with the other people in the town – especially Kieko – he learns to come out of his shell a little bit. Even when they find out the truth, they do no react in horror as we may expect, but seek to understand him.

The film climaxes with an absurd, sustained fight sequence that in my mind may push the comedy a little too far to really fit in with the rest of the movie. Yes, Imamura has portrayed his characters in the movie as ridiculous from the start, but he also feels a tremendous amount of sympathy for them – something that is nearly impossible to accomplish in a movie. But Imamura does so here. Yes, the film is messy – at times perhaps even confusing – and Imamura could have made a tighter film that may have been better. But then, it wouldn’t be his film. The Eel may not be quite as good as some of Imamura’s other films (and I do need to see more, although I love 1979’s Vengeance is Mine), but it is a fine film.

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