The Eel: Dark, sweet, odd Japan.

The Eel is a 1997 Japanese film by Shôhei Imamura who also collaborated in the screenplayu that is loosely based on the novel On Parole by Akira Yoshimura. It won the Palme d’Or at the 1997 Cannes Film Festival.

This is a film of contradictions. Dark and sunny.  Funny and tragic. Deep and light. Sex and abstinence. Trust, betrayal, loyalty, friendship and integrity. Overall it is a beautiful film and I recommend it to anyone, but be prepared for a couple of disappointments. Its long, and therefore rather drawn out as there is not a lot of plot to get through. The acting is superb, but the director doesn’t dwell on the actors faces enough for us to get deeply close to the powerhouse exhibited in them. It’s starkly sexual, and puritanical as well, leaving one feeling a little frustrated. Not withstanding all these issues, it’s a lovely film and I had a great time watching it.

Imamura has said “I am interested in the lower part of the human body and the lower part of the social structure” and this one sentence manifesto is emblazoned on every aspect of this film.

Tipped off by an anonymous letter, the innocuous salaryman Takuro–played by Koji Yakusho returns home early from an all-night fishing trip and, catching his wife in adultery stabs her to death. The credits come up as Takuro bicycles to the police station to turn himself in.

The film really starts eight years later when Takuro has been released, two years early for good behaviour. He is placed in the custody of a priest, told not to get into any trouble, and given his pet eel that he fed through the prion bars to take with him. In prison he trained as a barber, so with the priests help, he sets up shop in an obscure little village with the eel in a tank on prominent display.  The eel is his only friend.  Takuro is a kind man, but on the whole doesn’t want anything to do with human beings. He’s still bitter from the events surrounding his wife, still in the clutches of jealousy and as far as he’s concerned people just aren’t worth it. The eel (a completely overstated symbol) sits in silent vigil, always available to be chatted with, never speaking back.

The narrative takes another turn here, and we start to notice life is as slippery as the eel itself, which regularly gets tipped from the tank but is never quite able to escape. The film moves from thriller into a purification ritual, and then to an odd sort of romance when Takuro saves the life of a woman who has attempted suicide. This woman looks a great deal like his murdered wife. As obvious as the symbol of the eel, Keiki (Played by Misa Shimizu) becomes the stand in for the murdered wife – a chance for Takuro to ‘start over’.

The plot now moves into melodrama as Keiki’s complicated life unfolds. Keiki is pregnant to a gangster who is stealing funds from her insane mother. She is terrified the madness runs in her family and that she will be bound to the gangster forever. The scene is set for Takuro to step in and ‘make amends’ with the world for what he did to his wife. The Eel concludes with a bizarre and yet somehow symmetrical turn of events that results in Takuro declaring to the eel that at last he has become him. Once Takuro has become the eel, he sets it free.

Despite the oddness and the overall blatant symbolism, this is a touching film. I found myself saying over and over, wow – this film is so lovely. Just when I thought it was getting too strange, it takes a twist that results in another reach for beauty. I did enjoy this film, and am glad that I saw it. I’ll be seeking out more Imamura films in the future.