As slippery and succulent as the fish that provides its symbolic core, Shohei Imamura’s first film since “Black Rain” eight years ago is a mood-shifting small-town saga about the redemption of a murderer. Filled with colorful characters, and fluctuating alarmingly — but with surprising success — among several levels on the emotional spectrum, this handsomely produced Palme d’Or co-winner seems unlikely to have much theatrical exposure internationally, but should certainly enhance its director’s rep on the festival route and play on quality TV networks.
Based on a novel, pic opens in 1988 when white-collar worker Yamashita (Koji Yakusho) receives an anonymous tip that his wife is committing adultery while he’s away on all-night fishing trips. He returns home unexpectedly one night, finds his wife in bed with her lover, and stabs her to death. Soaked in blood, he gives himself up at a local police station.
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Eight years later, he’s released on parole, having trained in prison as a barber. Among his few possessions is an eel he found while in the slammer and which he has befriended — he talks to the creature and to almost no one else. His parole officer, a priest, takes him to a small village on an estuary, where Yamashita starts to rebuild his life, opening a barber shop. Though he’s extremely taciturn and unsociable, he is befriended by a small group of locals, including a mechanic and an eccentric who spends his time awaiting the arrival of UFOs.
One day he stumbles across the unconscious body of Keiko (Misa Shimizu), a 30-ish woman who’s attempted suicide and who reminds Yamashita of his dead wife. She recovers, and attaches herself to him, working in his barber shop and helping make it a popular place to hang out for members of this small community. But although Keiko would clearly like a more intimate relationship, Yamashita keeps her at arm’s length.
Until this point, “The Eel” successfully charts the gradual rehabilitation and humanization of its isolated protagonist, who has lost the knack for communicating but finds himself drawn back gradually into everyday life.
But the increasingly bizarre situations and characters who inhabit the second part of the film ensure that sober realism is left behind in favor of highly charged emotional drama and, eventually, even farcical comedy. These elements begin with the introduction of a garbage man who recognizes Yamashita, having served time in the same prison, and continue with an exploration of Keiko’s background, which includes her affair with a gangster who hopes to obtain money from her wealthy but deranged mother.
Yakusho gives a dignified performance as a man who killed in a mad moment of jealousy (many viewers may feel Imamura lets this character too easily off the hook) and who gradually returns to a normal life. Even better is Shimizu as the warmhearted Keiko, who helps with the healing process although she has plenty of scars of her own.
Supporting characters are colorful, especially Etsuko Ichihara as Keiko’s flamboyant mother, a woman incongruously addicted to Spanish dancing.
While the symbolism of the eel itself is a bit obvious, Imamura has created a rich tapestry of characters and situations, all of it vividly brought to life with pristine visuals and a generous emotional warmth.