The Eel Movie Review
Shohei (Black Rain -- not the Michael Douglas version) Imamura's new film, The Eel, documents this quiet, eccentric character during his first several months of parole. What starts out as the story of a murderer shifts gears to become a quirky character study with more than a little touch of farce as he attempts to start his life over as a village barber in a small seaside town. He doesn't seem to like people very much, spending most of his time confessing to his eel, which "listened to him" as his pet during those hard years in prison.
His broadly played, if colorful, neighbors include a cheerful priest who happens to be his parole officer, a grouchy and cantankerous fisherman, a simple soul who thinks that by hanging up bright lights around the barber pole he'll be able to summon UFOs, and a garbageman who seems to recognize Yamashita from prison.
Most troubling of all is Keiko, a young woman who attempted suicide by the river. Yamashita saved her life, and she's decided to repay her debt by helping him around the shop. Of course, she bears an uncanny resemblance to his murdered wife.
Imamura plays his cards close to the vest, allowing his story to play out through the minimal bits of information Yamashita and Keiko will divulge about their lives. He does manage to pack in enormous quantities of backstory with economy and grace, and slowly hints at how these two broken souls deal with their histories of guilt and make their wayward attempt to leave that past behind them.
The Eel is packed with charged silences as they clean the barber shop together, or deal with customers, and every now and then we will receive a glimmer of new information. It's almost entirely photographed in long shots which provide a meditative distance from the characters and their dramatic situations, and keeps their story subtle.
If the film stumbles before the climax, perhaps it's because Imamura has inserted too many distracting subplots which somehow feel gauche and overcooked, like Keiko's half insane mother fancying herself a dancing queen or the kid looking to the skies for UFOs. They don't really fit with the central dramatic action, and the humor is too broad and forced to work alongside the seriousness of Yamashita's scenes.
The final confrontation feels like it belongs in a French farce, with slamming doors and a packed room of shouting people. It also serves to wrap up the story a little too neatly, giving easy ways out for the central problems of Yamashita and Keiko.
The Eel works best in those quiet moments where two people seem to slowly, fearfully drift toward each other. Unfortunately, when you surround them with a raucous circus of offbeat neighbors clamoring for attention, the central arc only gets lost in the shuffle.