Japan's Shohei Imamura has twice won the Palme D'Or at Cannes, something only two other filmmakers have accomplished. But achievement at Cannes hasn't translated into success in America for the esteemed veteran director (Vengeance is Mine, Black Rain), whose The Eel opens this week at the Coolidge Corner.
Imamura's first Cannes victory was for The Ballad of Narayama (1983), a gallows comedy set in a remote region of Japan, where the local yokels routinely carry the old folks out to die on a hilltop of bones. The Japanese distibutor, swelled by the Cannes award, demanded lots of money for USA rights. The strategy backfired, as American distributors, already puzzled at how to sell such a macabre picture, simply passed on it. The Ballad of Narayama, to my knowledge, never played theatrically in the USA.
When The Eel was announced as co-winner of the 1997 Palme D'Or, the moneyed American disributors stayed away. "Minor Imamura," was the catchword; the prize was given, all agreed, only because there weren't real standout movies in Cannes' regrettable, forgettable 50th anniversary Competition. It took a year-and-a-half for The Eel to reach our theaters courtesy of the small, respectable New Yorker Films.
I hoped that I could announce that The Eel has been cruelly undervalued, that a close look past the superficialities of Cannes reveals (when seen by the right sensitive eyes: mine!) a subtle masterpiece. No. The Eel is minor Imamura.I've watched it twice, a year between in my viewings, and the picture didn't grow on me, or, the second time, lose me. The Eel is a picture of small virtues, and unusual for the usually corrosive, pessimist filmmaker, kindly and humanist. You won't regret seeing it; you won't be E-mailing myriad acquaintances about a transformational film experience.
The story. A city-based white collar worker, Mr. Yamashita (Koji Yakusho), a blank face in the Japanese crowd, reads an anonymous letter while he rides a commuter bus: his wife is having an affair in their home as he fishes at night. So he goes fishing as usual, comes home early, and surprises the lovers. He stabs his wife to death, walks dutifully to the local police station and confesses to the homicide.
Eight years later: Yamashita emerges from prison with one odd possession: an eel slithering at the bottom of a plastic bag. His pet. Why an eel? "He listens to what I say. He doesn't say what I don't want to here...An eel suits me." That's the only explanation we get from this taciturn, expressionless man, whose time incarcerated hasn't seemed to change him in any way. As for the murder: he hasn't expressed remorse for it, he hasn't gloated about it. He hasn't done anything.
The bulk of The Eel is devoted to Yamashita's slow, slow thaw, when, living now in the country and running a barbershop, he begins to connect with humanity, with community. He gets a girlfiend ( a dull Misa Shimnizu), sort of, though they never kiss. He spends quality hours with a cherubic, worldly Buddhist priest. Finally, he manages a few choked sentences about killing his wife.
The ending of the film is touching and poetic, though it takes a long time getting there, to push past Imamura's misguided flashbacks about the girlfriend's previously melodramatic life. But you'll definitely like that eel, which hangs on in a fish tank, and which makes a nicely elusive symbol, meaning whatever meaning one assigns it, like Ibsen's wild duck.
Boston Phoenix, October, 1998