Shohei Imamura, “The Eel / Unagi” (1997)
Japan’s boys in blue have an enviable record in obtaining a near 100% rate of criminal convictions and never more so than when the criminal walks into the police station, calmly announces that he’s just killed his wife and places the bloody knife on the customer services counter. Thus begins a complex character study in which a man, burdened with guilt and a heavy past, claws his way back into society and thus redeem himself. After eight years in prison for killing his wife whom he caught in flagrante delicto with a lover, Takuro Yamashita (Koji Yakusho) moves away from Tokyo and with the help of his Buddhist priest parole officer makes a new life for himself as a barber in a country town. The community is populated with some oddball types who include a young man who borrows Takuro’s barbershop pole in the evenings to attract UFOs.
Initially business isn’t great because Takuro is a morose taciturn fellow who talks only to his pet eel, acquired at the prison. Then into his life comes a mysterious young woman Keiko (Misa Shimizu) who has just attempted suicide. Takuro saves her life and in gratitude Keiko offers to work as his assistant. The priest parole officer approves of the arrangement and soon Keiko starts attracting business for the barbershop in town and beyond with her grace and beauty. She falls in love with Takuro and Takuro himself struggles to repress his desire for her. But as life would have it, Takuro’s former prison-mate Takasaki turns up as a local garbage collector jealous of Takuro’s luck in finding a new life and threatening to expose Takuro’s secret past; and Keiko’s past catches up with her as an old flame (Tomorowo Taguchi) tries to extort money from her mentally fragile mother and comes to threaten Keiko herself.
The film’s style is smooth, graceful and studied with moments of intense emotion and slapstick humour that don’t really sit well together. The early scenes suggest that a gritty hardboiled drama is in the offering but as the film progresses, director Imamura seems to find handling some climactic scenes rather too confronting and intense as these are turned into improbable farce. The film is mainly driven by its characters and in this the two leading actors excel: Yakusho as Takuro combines patience, stoicism, self-guilt, remorse and repressed desire in the one taciturn character and Shimizu plays a complex self-conflicted woman who at first appears submissive and virginal but is later revealed as a passionate and assertive businesswoman who beats up her gangster boyfriend.
The film is an interrogation of contrasts within and between people and what these say about the rather schizophrenic nature of modern Japanese society. Individuals may deal with these contrasts and the stresses they create by indulging in odd and eccentric pastimes: Takuro by talking to his eel, Keiko’s mother by imagining herself as a flamenco dancer and the young townsman by trying to communicate with extraterrestrials. Takuro’s dead wife Emiko and Keiko are compared and contrasted in their sensuality and their homely domesticity, most notably in their offerings of lunch to Takuro. Takuro finds redemption in running a barbershop and talking to his eel while Takasaki is unable to find authenticity and a path in life despite chanting Buddhist sutras constantly. Madness appears to be a constant theme: Keiko frets that she might have inherited her mum’s unstable nature and Takuro has periodic hallucinations. At the end of the day, we don’t really know if Takuro really did catch Emiko with a lover. This possibility together with some disturbing implications are dealt with rather flippantly by Imamura by having Keiko fall pregnant with a baby whose paternity is unknown. Takuro accepts Keiko in her pregnant state but one wonders whether the way in which he passively agrees to support Keiko and her unborn child really does signify a wholehearted acceptance of Keiko with all her faults and foibles or if this merely suggests Takuro’s accommodation with society and its pressures.
It may well be that Takuro was truly himself when he killed Emiko, only to lapse back into his deadened self to face the consquences. His behaviour towards Keiko as their working relationship becomes close may either be interpreted as Takuro rediscovering his true emotional self, or paying off his karmic debt or simply acting as he should since he is on parole and must behave properly. The tension throughout the film comes from viewers’ knowledge of Takuro’s early intense rage and whether it will erupt again to such devastating effect. At the end of the film (spoiler alert), there is a real possibility that Takuro will not return to Keiko and that Keiko herself may return to her old job in the city.
The letters that Takuro receives in the film may or may not be real and the film suggests that Takuro’s real problem is his inability to be true to himself and to give and receive love. Takasaki plays on his mind quite a bit to the extent that Takuro has difficulty accepting his hallucinations about the man for what they are and projecting his hallucinations outwardly in ways viewers may find disturbing.
Ultimately the film suffers itself from the burden of its abstract complexity and the various mind games it plays with the audience. The movie starts off strongly but then doesn’t quite know whether it wants to be a romantic comedy or a drama of passion. Most of the support cast tend to be one-dimensional and parts of the plot appear as an after-thought: Takasaki is introduced quite late in the piece as a foil for Takuro and Takuro’s relationship with his eel is rather undeveloped – the eel is made to symbolise aspects of Takuro’s life that remain hidden and also carries him through his transition from prison life to civilian normality. Though when at last Takuro releases his eel into the sea, one must ask whether this means Takuro has regained what he lost in his distant white-collar job or whether he has finally accepted that mainstream society requires him to stay emotionally dead.