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EEL, THE (UNAGI)(director/writer: Shohei Imamura; screenwriters: Daisuke Tengan/Motofumi Tomikawa; cinematographer: Shigeru Komatsubara; editor: Hajime Okayasu; cast: Koji Yakusho (Takuro Yamashita), Misa Shimizu (Keiko Hattori), Fujio Tsuneta (Rev. Jiro Nakajima), Mitsuko Baisho (Misako Nakajima), Akira Emoto (Tamotsu Takasaki), Sho Aikawa (Yuji Nozawa), Tomoro Taguchi (Eiji Dojima), Ken Kobayashi (Masaki Saito); Runtime: 117; A Shochiku presentation; 1998-Japan)
“An interesting film that works most effectively as an introspective study of how to deal with one’s anger and love.”

Reviewed by Dennis Schwartz

Imamura’s last film before this one was as long ago as Black Rain (89). The director who was born in 1926, was an assistant to Yasujiro Ozu early on in his career. When he left Ozu he developed his own style which differs radically from the master’s formal one–his is a style of fractiousness, he’s not interested in ever making a perfect film. Imamura has made 20 features in his 40-year film career. This lyrical film shared with “Taste of Cherry” the Palme d’Or for 1997. It’s an insightful study about a man trying to find himself after spending the last eight years in prison.

The film begins in the summer of 1988. Takuro Yamashita (Koji Yakusho) is an nondescript office worker commuting to work by train, when he reads an anonymous letter he received mentioning his wife is having an affair which take place when he goes on his all-night fishing trips.

On Yamashita’s next fishing trip his wife packs him a picnic basket and wishes him luck, but he returns early from his all-night fishing trip and sees a white sedan parked in front of his house. Through the house window Yamashita sees his wife making ecstatic love with an unseen man. Yamashita draws a long fisherman’s knife when entering the bedroom and butchers her to death, letting her lover go who yells at him you’re a murderer before fleeing. Yamashita then pedals his bike to the police station with his yellow slicker still drenched in blood, and confesses to the police that he has just murdered his wife.

When Yamashita gets out of prison the guards give him the pet eel he kept in a pond, which they told the other prison authorities was theirs because prisoners can’t keep pets. A Buddhist priest (Fujio Tsuneta) will become Yamashita’s parole officer for the next two years. Trained in prison to be a barber, Yamashita opens up a shop in a desolate suburb of Tokyo within a short traveling distance from where the priest lives with his wife. It is interesting to note how this couple can be so caring to take this murderer into their home, something that would not likely happen in America.

Though Imamura paints Yamashita’s character as being serious and withdrawn, there are comical interludes which make him seem plain daffy. When walking with the wise Buddhist priest, Yamashita sees some joggers go by and joins them out of habit from the eight years of such jailhouse routines and goes into his jog ala prison-style and has to be called back by the priest. Yamashita also talks to his eel, whom he keeps in an aquarium. Yamashita explains that he talks to the eel because he listens to what I say.

Trying to reintegrate to society is not an easy thing for Yamashita to do. He feels alienated from people, but he is able to make contact with some of the fringe members of his new neighborhood. One of them is a young unemployed man (Kobayashi), still living with his parents, who believes in UFOs. To help him attract them to his site Yamashita lends him his barber’s pole, though one of the neighbors says all this talk of UFOs has been started by the TV stations to boost their ratings. Another friend is a neighborhood fisherman who takes him out nights on fishing trips and when he sees that Yamashita can’t spear the eels because he doesn’t want to hurt them, he builds a tunnel contraption to catch them without hurting them.

Yamashita’s best catch is an attractive 34-year-old woman from Tokyo, who resembles his late wife. She tries to commit suicide in this isolated area by the river where he is fishing, and he saves her life by getting his neighbors to take her to the hospital. Her name is Keiko Hattori (Misa Shimizu), and she is despondent because she fell in love with the wrong man. Keiko also has problems because her man has been fooling around with her mentally disturbed mother, who thinks she is a flamenco dancer. Mom has just been released from a psychiatric hospital.

The Buddhist priest gets Keiko to work in Yamashita’s barber shop and she brings all the social touches needed to make it a friendlier place, which starts bringing in customers. Keiko is also romantically interested in him, but he pulls away too scared to start a relationship.

Things change when a garbage man (Akira Emoto) who was in the same prison, tells Keiko out of spite that the barber is a wife-murderer. The ex-con drunkenly tries to rape her, and comes back later to fight with the barber. We learn more about Keiko and her problematic relationship, and we also find out that Yamashita’s jealous rage was caused because he loved his wife too much.

Before we get to the funny climactic scene, we are told about the eel’s habits. The eel’s mating habits involve the female laying her egg in the waters by the equator where the unknown father impregnates the egg, and then the male eels migrate to Japan.

The climax brings most of the characters involved in the story together in the barber shop for what could have been a serious fight, but instead turns into a comical free-for-all among Keiko’s ex-boyfriend thug, Dojima (Taguchi), his henchmen, the town’s policeman, and Yamashita and his neighbors. The most serious damage, is that the eel’s aquarium tank is busted in the melee.

The rehabilitation of Yamashita is supported by his willingness to be cooperative with his parole officer and come to terms with his violent crime through how he feels in his heart, and by Keiko and his neighbor’s finding him trustworthy. But through the interactions of those in society, not through any fault of his, the past catches up with him and he again must face the consequences of the Japanese penal system. An interesting film that works most effectively as an introspective study of how to deal with one’s anger and love.


Dennis Schwartz: “Ozus’ World Movie Reviews”