After five years of making interesting but unexceptional films that are by no means the best of the new Japanese cinema of alienation and unease, writer-director Shinji Aoyama has emerged from nowhere with a boldly impressive work.

After five years of making interesting but unexceptional films that are by no means the best of the new Japanese cinema of alienation and unease, writer-director Shinji Aoyama has emerged from nowhere with a boldly impressive work. A dramatically minimalist, emotionally rich saga about pain and psychological scars in the aftermath of tragedy, “Eureka” builds steadily through a series of masterfully orchestrated modulations to a final act without shattering revelations or lofty dramatic peaks but with a quiet, formidable power. Inevitably, the film will be commercially constricted by its length, but should land exposure through specialized niche distribs in discerning arthouse markets.

Clearly, any black-and-white film with a running time just short of four hours will figure more prominently on festival slates than in regular release. Other fests might be wise to avoid the questionable decision of Cannes programmers in scheduling such a demanding work near the end of the event, when audience concentration and patience has been taxed by more than a week of intensive viewing.

Initially covering parallel ground to Atom Egoyan’s “The Sweet Hereafter” and Peter Weir’s “Fearless,” “Eureka” examines how survivors of a devastating experience are drawn together as they grasp for answers to their suffering, shock and guilt. The trauma in this case relates to the hijacking of a bus in a small town in southeastern Japan.

With a grace and economy that characterize all of the film’s important dramatic junctions, Aoyama enters the incident when it’s already under way, showing a body on the ground and another hostage being shot as he attempts to flee. Police arrive and begin negotiations by phone with the hijacker (Riju Go), who steps outside for fresh air, taking bus driver Makoto (Koji Yakusho) with him for cover.

When the driver faints, cops shoot the hijacker, who manages to get back on board the bus and claim another victim while two stunned schoolchildren, Naoki (Masaru Miyazaki) and Kozue (Aoi Miyazaki), look on.

Two years pass in which shellshocked Makoto has wandered off from his family and returned with no explanation, unsurprisingly finding that his wife has left. Naoki and Kozue’s mother has bailed on her marriage and their father has died, leaving them alone in the large house with insurance money to cover their needs.

Makoto goes back to work for a construction company, where he remains indifferent to the attentions of an attractive office clerk. Meanwhile, the bodies of murdered women begin turning up in the river. Makoto’s strange behavior makes his brother suspect he may be the killer, prompting Makoto to leave the family’s home.

He shows up on the doorstep of Naoki and Kozue, who have literally been shocked into silence by their ordeal. They communicate with each other without words and seem to respond to Makoto’s presence in the house, establishing an odd semblance of family and order again. Threatening their harmony is Akihiko (Yohichiroh Saitoh), a cocky cousin from the city who never really tries to comprehend what the trio have been through.

His disapproval of the kids’ surrogate father grows when the construction clerk is found dead and Makoto becomes the prime suspect. He’s released, however, due to insufficient evidence.

While the story up to this point would provide sufficient meat for most dramas, it merely serves to position the characters at the start of a melancholy odyssey that represents the real heart of the film. Perceiving a growing need in the children to break with their environment and start afresh, Makoto buys a minibus and converts it into a camper to take his three housemates on a trip, beginning at the scene of the hijacking. As in many Japanese films set far from the coast, the sea becomes a pivotal destination.

Undeniably, this story could be told in less time, but the rigorousness and control of Aoyama’s direction command admiration and attention throughout. Several scenes seem to present themselves as ideal endings, but each time, new developments follow that take the characters in richer, more complex directions.

Its conclusion — with the travelers reduced in number following the discovery of another body and the unmasking of the killer — offers hope of renewal while conveying that the healing process may never be completely over. That optimism is underlined by a switch to color in the final few minutes.

Actors are uniformly impressive, especially prolific star Yakusho (“The Eel,” “Shall We Dance?”), who provides a moving, subdued center to the drama, quietly showing the burden of his character’s sadness and responsibility. In perhaps the most difficult roles, real-life brother and sister Aoi and Masaru Miyazaki are remarkable, communicating a wealth of feeling without dialogue and with very little outward show of emotion.

Filmed on color stock and printed in black-and-white that’s almost sepia-toned, “Eureka” makes no secret of being visually inspired by the films of John Ford. The austere, unpopulated landscapes are magnificently captured in lenser Masaki Tamra’s widescreen images, balancing fluid camera movement with arrestingly framed still compositions. Not only the visual feel of the film, but also the drama’s shrewd use of silence reveals a debt to Ford.

Eureka

Japan

Production

A J Works/Suncent Cinemaworks presentation, in association with Les Films de l’Observatoire, of a Dentsu/Imagica/Suncent Cinemaworks/Tokyo Theaters production. (International sales: Wild Bunch, Paris.) Produced by Takenori Sento. Co-producer, Philippe Avril. Directed, written by Shinji Aoyama.

Crew

Camera (B&W/color, widescreen), Masaki Tamra; editor, Aoyama; music, Isao Yamada, Aoyama; production designer, Takeshi Shimizu; sound (DTS Stereo), Nobuyuki Kikuchii. Reviewed at Cannes Film Festival (competing), May 18, 2000. Running time: 218 MIN.

With

Koji Yakusho, Aoi Miyazaki, Masaru Miyazaki, Yohichiroh Saitoh, Ken Mitsuishi, Go Riju, Yutaka Matsushige, Sansei Shiomi, Kimie Shingyouji.
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