Before the opening titles are done, Takuro Yamashita, a suburban salaryman, has caught his wife in bed with another man, killed her, and turned himself in. The Eel's subject is not crime, but its aftermath and the difficulty of rejoining the web of life when your faith in yourself has been shattered.
The Eel directed by Shohei Imamura
starring Koji Yakusho, Jiro Nakajima
plays November 612 at Varsity
Eight years on, Yamashita emerges from prison, sullen and withdrawn, avoiding all human contact. The only creature to whom he can show any feeling is his pet eel. Why an eel? "He listens to what I say and doesn't say what I don't want to hear," explains Yamashita. How that makes the eel preferable to, say, a black lab, is never clear, but no matter. This beautiful film (the Palme d'Or winner at Cannes) deploys its symbols with simple directness while keeping a pervasive sense of mystery.
Under the supervision of his parole officer, a Buddhist priest (played with great heart by Jiro Nakajima), Yamashita removes to a small and grimy coastal town where he renovates an old barber shop. Business is slow, and he spends most of his time fishing. Then he comes upon the body of a young woman who looks remarkably like his wife. Overcoming a parolee's urge to flee from trouble, he calls for help and ends up saving her from attempted suicide. At the urging of the priest, Yamashita takes the woman on as his assistant. Business at the barber shop takes off as the beautiful Keiko adds what can only be described as a woman's touch, with flowers, clean towels, and freshly baked treats for the customers. Keiko's growing love for Yamashita challenges him to emerge from his embittered isolation, while she, we gradually learn, seeks refuge from a shameful and violent past of her own.
Koji Yakusho, of Shall We Dance?, plays Yamashita as a stricken man, not entirely sympathetic, feeling haunted less by remorse than by his lack of it. The eel—self-contained in its needs and selfless in caring for young that may not be its own—embodies a moral purity that the tormented ex-con longs for. He half-hallucinates the appearance of a drunken former inmate, who mocks him for imagining that he will ever leave the past behind.
The film moves with a patience and grace that match the courtesy of the characters—and, like them, it is marked with a barely contained intensity of feeling. Director Shohei Imamura shoots from a respectful distance, making the few true close-ups moments of real revelation. The nondescript seaside landscape provides a bleak beauty that seems to challenge Yamashita not to look there for solace.
The Eel's ending comes in a bit of a rush. Just as its emotional intensity has deepened and the plot has begun to unwind a more complex coil, there is a brisk resolution. A crowded and desultory fight scene is followed by an almost Shakespearean gathering of the town's small cast of players for a party that signals all ends well. However, Imamura resists the pull of an untroubled conclusion, and instead remains faithful to the challenge of Yamashita's fate.