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Austin Chronicle The Eel

NOVEMBER 23, 1998:  Co-winner of the Palme d'Or at Cannes in 1997, The Eel by Shohei Imamura (Black Rain) is the director's thoughtful meditation on love, death, and, well, eels. It's a film that works at any level you wish to view it, but more importantly, Imamura's colorful, occasionally caustic view of modern-day Japan is a departure from pre-fabricated Western ideals of the inscrutable East. Imamura's characters play out their extraordinary lives against a backdrop of drama, comedy, and the surreal that rivals Twin Peaks for sheer oddity. Unlike Lynch's disquieting version of small-town life, however, Imamura treats his characters with a sublime, gentle wit. Yakusho (Shall We Dance?) plays Takuro Yamashita, a drone salaryman who, as the film opens, has received an anonymous note informing him that his young wife (Shimizu) is having an affair. Maintaining his calm routine, Takuro bids farewell to his wife one night, goes off on his regular weekend fishing trip, but returns home early, and discovers that the inflammatory note is indeed the truth. In a jealous rage he stabs his wife to death, and then pedals his bicycle to the police station and turns himself in. Eight years later, he is released, with his pet eel -- his only friend from prison -- in tow. His parole officer, a Buddhist priest, helps him start up a barbershop in a remote Japanese village, and though Takuro remains silent and cool on the murder, he slowly begins life again, talking to his pet eel and renovating his new home. Into this placid dream walks Keiko (Shimizu), a beautiful young woman who bears a curious resemblance to the deceased, and who takes a job as Takuro's assistant, eventually falling in love with him. Across this redemptive canvas, Imamura splashes an assortment of oddball characters, including Takuro's UFO-obsessed neighbor, a sport fisherman who knows even more about the hidden lives of eels than Takuro, and two antagonistic forces, one from Takuro's dark past, and the other from Keiko's. Can the sins of the past be washed away by the love of the present? That's what Imamura is asking, and though his answers are -- at best -- vague, The Eel has a playful sentimentality that overrides its dark underpinnings. Yakusho and Shimizu are both enormously engaging -- he of the stoic grace and guilt, and she of the flitting hesitancy -- but together they're a wonder. Likewise Imamura's film, which relies heavily on some breathtaking camerawork by director of photography Shigeru Komatsubara. Like watercolors on rice paper, The Eel has a formalist look to it, the dark blues of Takuro's nighttime fishing expeditions colliding with the bright tones of his barbershop. It's no wonder Imamura has now collected not one but two Palmes d'Ors; The Eel is a flash of quiet brilliance that resonates long after the images have faded from the screen.
4.0 stars

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