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Review: Slippery metaphors in 'The Eel'

Web posted on:
Thursday, December 03, 1998 1:02:35 PM EST

From Reviewer Paul Tatara

(CNN) -- Shohei Imamura's "The Eel" won the Palme D'Or at the 1997 Cannes Film Festival, which is considered by many people to be a top-level seal of approval. I've always been inclined to affix my own seals of approval, though, and I wasn't completely sold on it. I'm not very happy about that -- after a while, you get desperate for something to bowl you over in my line of work -- but the film really didn't add up to anything for me.

The performances (especially the lead one by "Shall We Dance"'s Koji Yakusho) are all quite good, but I was once again stuck watching a movie that's solely about repressed passion, perhaps the least cinematic thing you could ever try to film.

Tack on the inwardly directed character of Japanese society as a whole, and you end up with a movie that takes forever to get going, if, in fact, it ever actually does get going. There are a lot of dangling threads in the plot's tapestry that never properly connect with the rest of the story until they're forced to during the final act.

Graphic start to subdued film

Yakusho stars as Takuro Yamashita, a quiet businessman blinded by rage when he catches his beautiful wife in bed with another man. This rather gentle character, who likes to spend his free time on overnight fishing trips, grabs a knife from the kitchen, rushes into the bedroom, and stabs the woman to death, literally while she's in the act. The murder is incredibly graphic, with the knife's multiple entries obscured only by sprays of blood that actually splatter across the camera lens. It's a nasty scene that's all the more strange for standing as the opening salvo of an otherwise stubbornly subdued film.

Takuro, his rain slicker dripping with blood, quietly bicycles to the nearest police station, hands over the knife, and turns himself in.

Now we jump forward eight years, catching up with him as he's released from jail. (The prison guards allow him to take his eel with him, a decidedly oddball pet that's referenced and photographed over and over again during the film without ever making a whole lot of metaphorical sense.) Takuro then falls under the guidance of his extremely spiritual parole officer, who encourages him to start a new life. Having trained as a barber while in prison, Takuro opens up a shop in a small, thinly populated town.

One day, he stumbles upon Keiko, a young woman who's lying in the weeds, unconscious, after taking an overdose of sleeping pills. She bears a striking resemblance to his murdered wife (both characters are, in fact, played by Misa Shimuzu).

No relationship

Soon after Takuro saves her life, Keiko goes to work with him at the barbershop. Business is finally picking up -- mostly, it's pointed out, because of the attractive help. Furtive glances from Keiko suggest that she's falling in love with Takuro, and it looks like that's going to come to fruition when she starts packing him lunches and waiting on a bridge as he returns from his nighttime fishing excursions. Takuro and one of the locals now serenely fish for eels, which might mean something heavy to somebody out there, but that person isn't writing this review.

Takuro refuses to accept those lovingly packed lunches from Keiko, and that's where the movie (for all its laudable tenderness) started to bug me. I'm not saying that the two have to get something going in order for the story to work, but endless denials from Takuro that he's even the least bit attracted to the woman take up a great deal of time. There are also a couple of uniquely conceived, poetic interludes concerning that damn eel that look nice while feeling altogether fishy to me. Judging from the focus of Takuro's passion, I started suspecting that he would rather sleep with the eel.

Then, you start getting a bunch of odd subplot action concerning Keiko's mentally unstable mother, her abusive ex-boyfriend, an unwanted pregnancy, and some possibly stolen money. It all takes place beyond the realm of Takuro's world, so there's no opportunity for these shenanigans to shade his life in the least bit.

Keiko keeps it all hidden from him, which you wouldn't expect in real life, but fully expect considering the tone of the movie. These two people are supposed to be falling in love (I think), but their communicative skills are definitely lacking. I wish one of them had taken the time to tell me what was going on.

"The Eel" contains nudity, a couple of fairly graphic sex scenes, and a thoroughly graphic stabbing. I actually flinched. Though exquisitely photographed and solidly acted, the movie is so quiet it's practically non-existent. Not rated, but would certainly receive an R. 117 minutes.

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