Tuesday, January 8, 2013

The Eel

Unagi; tragicomedy, Japan, 1997; D: Shohei Imamura, S: Koji Yakusho, Misa Shimizu, Mitsuko Baisho

Yamashita is an average employee in an office. One day, after receiving an anonymous letter informing him that his wife is cheating on him, he returns early from fishing, in the middle of the night, and finds her in bed with another man. He kills her and turns himself in to the police. Eight years later, he is released, opens a local barber shop and finds a pet, an eel. He saves a woman, Keiko, from suicide, and she decides to be his employee. She has feelings for him, but after his disaster with his late wife, he is reserved towards her. Keiko is pregnant with her ex-boyfriend, who just wants money from her rich, but loony mother. In order to protect her honor, Yamashita lies that he is the father of her baby and attacks her ex-boyfriend, thus he has to return to jail for violating the parole.

In 1997, the Cannes festival puzzled the critics once more: while the Golden Palm was awarded to Kiarostami's beautiful "Taste of Cherry" justifiably, it remained a mystery why the prize had to be shared with the slightly overrated "The Eel", which was awarded unjustifiably, making Shohei Imamura one of only a handful of directors who won it twice. Unlike some of Imamura's previous 'raw' films, in which he displayed his fascinating philosophy that some of fundamental truths in life can only be found through the lower class, which is passionate, but alive, as opposed to the upper class, which is sophisticated, but dead, "The Eel" is a rather conciliatory, gentler story with a few untypically sweet humorous touches for him, and if two sex scenes were excluded, the movie would be almost conservative. The pace and the running time are overlong and overstretched, almost untypically restrained for Imamura at times, yet some of interesting symbolical observations were done thanks to the hero's pet, an eel, which some have interpreted as his impotence, his fetish or an allegory of outsiders (a male eel fertilizes eggs left by a female and thus does not know his descendants, just like the hero in the end), whereas casting the two actors in the two leading roles - Yakusho and Shimizu - was a stroke of genius since their energy lifts the mood even during lesser sequences, whereas some jokes come swiftly, but wonderfully (after Keiko accidentally hit Yamashita's head, he is later seen wearing a bandage over his head, which comically has a hole above and thus leaves his hair jutting like in a rooster).


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