- Original title
- Japanese title
- Running time
- 117 minutes
- 10 July 2001
by Tom Mes
Businessman Yamashita (Yakusho) receives an anonymous letter, telling him that a strange man visits his wife whenever he's out on his nightly fishing trips. After pondering for a long time, he sets out for the seaside one night with the intention of returning early and finding out the truth. Indeed he finds his wife in bed with a stranger, enjoying herself with an abandon Yamashita has never experienced. In a daze, he enters the bedroom with a knife in his hand and kills his wife. Several hours later he walks into the police station, covered in her blood, and turns himself in.
After serving eight years in prison, Yamashita is released into the care of his parole officer, an elderly priest in whose hometown the former salaryman find himself installed a deserted barber shop to ply the new trade he learnt in captivity. Yamashita took from prison only the clothes on his back and the eel that he raised in the penitentiary's pond. To the institutionalised and alienated Yamashita, the eel serves as a way to avoid communicating with others. But the men of the small, desolate town soon start frequenting his shop, mostly because they have nothing better to do, and a circle of quirky friends quickly forms around the shy, reluctant barber.
While out fishing one day, Yamashita saves the life of Keiko (Shimizu), a woman attempting to commit suicide after a disastrous relationship with a scheming boyfriend who used her to get to her mother's money. This act may put Yamashita right in the cosmic scheme of things - he took a life and saved one - but as far as Yamashita is concerned, things are slightly more complicated. It does however prove to be a turning point. A few days later, Keiko is assisting him in his barbershop and the possibility of something resembling a normal life is opening up to him. He's not too eager to embrace it, but since both are carrying the weight of a dark past, a bond inevitably forms which grows stronger when both their pasts come back to haunt them.
In his case it's a fellow convict who has been put to work as the local garbage man (Emoto) and who threatens to spill the beans on Yamashita's past. In her case, freeloading boyfriend Dojima (Taguchi) is back with several cronies, a lawyer, and a demand for money.
For a study of one man's emotional awakening, The Eel seems to make little effort to penetrate its protagonist's mind. As in real life, his behavior is our only lead. Occasional voice-overs provide glimpses into Yamashita's psyche, but Imamura's method of detailing the inner life of his protagonist is done in a rather more indirect fashion, making extensive use of symbolism. The most obvious example is the eel, who in a parallel to Yamashita lives a lonesome sheltered life in his tank, without the need or the will to communicate with the outside world (the metaphor is somewhat redundantly explained in the final moments of the film). Rather more interestingly executed is the character of local garbage man and fellow convict Tamasaki, who serves as the personification of Yamashita's insecurities and self-doubt. His behaviour and actions are irrational and erratic, and whenever he pops up, trouble is never far off.
Imamura gives us some interesting casting choices, particularly in selecting Sho Aikawa, better known for his appearances in countless straight-to-video yakuza movies, to play one of Yamashita's newly-found friends. Performances are terrific all around, with Yakusho as the stand-out center point. 1997 was the breakthrough year for the former stage actor, who appeared in a string of commercial, critical, or controversial successes, including Masayuki Suo's Shall We Dance?, Kiyoshi Kurosawa's Cure and Yoshimitsu Morita's Lost Paradise (Shitsurakuen).
Based on a novel by Akira Yoshimura and scripted by Imamura and his son Daisuke Tengan (also screenwiter of Takashi Miike's Audition) The Eel won its director his second Palme d'Or at the Cannes Film Festival, after The Ballad of Narayama in 1983. Frail of health, the aging Imamura preferred to stay in Japan, leaving ceremonial duties to lead actor Koji Yakusho. The Eel wouldn't be Imamura's last film to compete in Cannes, as it was followed by Warm Water Under a Red Bridge (Akai Hashi no Shita no Nurui Mizu) in 2001.
Boosted by the award, The Eel received widespread distribution and critical acclaim. Both are richly deserved, because this is a film that manages to be both poignant and funny. While the film lacked the vitriol of his best work of the 1960s, it's not hard to see how its combination of the quirky and absurd on the one hand and the dramatic on the other charmed international audiences.