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Weekly Alibi The Eel

By Devin D. O'Leary

DECEMBER 14, 1998:  When Japanese filmmaker Shohei Imamura (The Pornographers, Black Rain) won the Palme d'Or at last year's Cannes International Film Festival, he became only the third filmmaker in history to capture the prize twice in a lifetime. The film that added a second gold palm leaf to Imamura's mantle was The Eel, a frosty rumination on love, murder and social mores in modern-day Japan.

Only now, nearly two years after its creation, is The Eel making its way to America courtesy of tiny New Yorker Films. Why so long a delay for such a lauded film? Well, praise at Cannes is hardly a guarantee of stateside success. Keep in mind that the most respected American director at Cannes in the last couple decades has been David Lynch, who's nabbed his fair share of French statues, but can't seem to get arrested in the U.S. The French don't much like American films, and the international juries at Cannes do their best to snub U.S. efforts in the festival. (It doesn't help that Hollywood has been choosing crap like Godzilla to open the festival of late.)

To say that The Eel is a resolutely Japanese film is an understatement. Based on the novel Sparkles in the Dark by Akira Yoshimura, The Eel tells the story of a faceless "salaryman" (a high-presure, white collar office worker--of which Japan has millions) named Taskuro Yamashita (Koji Yakusho, who played a similar salaryman role in Shall We Dance?). Yamashita's ordered world is torn apart one day when he receives an anonymous letter telling him that his wife is having an adulterous affair. Pretending to go on a long fishing trip, Yamashita returns on short notice. He discovers his wife in the sweaty embrace of another man, picks up a kitchen knife and methodically stabs his wife to death.

The emotionally bottled land of Japan isn't known for its crimes of passion--and Yamashita's crime certainly doesn't seem like one of passion. Obviously Yamashita acts out of jealousy and anger, but Imamura lenses this shocking crime with little more emotional intensity than Yamashita's day at the office. Sprinkling the screen with a theatrical sheen of blood during the murder, the director creates a stilted, stagy feeling that could be linked to Japan's historical dramatics (Kabuki, Noh, Bunraku). Indeed, there is a certain rigid formality that runs through the entire picture.

After going to a nearby police station, turning over the knife and calmly explaining his crime, Yamashita is sentenced to eight years in prison. Like the society it depicts, Imamura's film doesn't wear its emotions on its sleeve. We are never told how to feel about developments, tragic or otherwise, in this story. Imamura leaves us to speculate on the connection between work and jail. For Yamashita, they are merely two sides of the same coin--both are cloistered, regimented institutes of society.

Upon his release, Yamashita is placed under the supervision of a kindly Buddhist priest and moves to a dead-end coastal town to start up a new life as a humble barber. His only friend is a pet eel he raised while in prison. "He listens to me," explains Yamashita. "He doesn't say things I don't want to hear." Clearly, our protagonist has lost his ability to connect emotionally with other human beings--one suspects, however, that ability was bred out of him long before his wife's murder.

Things change, though, when Yamashita saves a young woman named Keiko (Misa Shimizu) from a suicide attempt. The emotionally bruised woman comes to work in Yamashita's barber shop. Before long, she has added a woman's touch to the surroundings, and business is booming. Although he continues to remain detached, it becomes clear that Keiko is falling in love with Yamashito.

As a cultural outsider, it might be a little hard to grasp the underlying message of The Eel. By Western standards, Yamashita is a walking puzzle, a clean slate over which no emotion ever seems to pass. We're a little more used to heroes who rant and rave and blow things up on occasion. By Japanese standards, though, Yamashita is the archetypal, dispassionate Japanese male of popular myth. His sudden act of violence, however, reveals a rage and a madness lurking behind the automaton facade of modern day Japan.

Like David Lynch, Shohei Imamura has a certain fondness for quirky settings and eccentric characters. The crumbling coastal town in which Yamashita finds himself is populated by assorted oddballs including Keiko's nutty fandango-dancing mother, her gangsterish ex-boyfriend and a young neighbor obsessed with contacting UFOs.

The Eel is not for every taste. In truth, its humble charms are probably best appreciated by Japanese viewers who have an innate understanding of a society that breeds workaholic salarymen and finds itself surprised when they snap one day, a society that admires the stoic but desires the passionate. Then again, American viewers (who admire the passionate but desire the stoic) might just learn something from this unusual, melancholy film.

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