Film Commentary [9-22-00]
Japanese Minimalism - - The Eel (Unagi)
Genre: Drama
Grade = B
Japanese with English subtitles
Available at large Blockbusters

The Eel is the story of Takuro Yamashita. Takuro loves to go fishing and he loves to go at night. This gives his wife ample opportunity to have an affair. He receives a letter informing him of the affair. The next night he leaves as if he is going fishing, however, he returns quickly and discovers his wife in bed with her lover. He stabs the lover and hacks his wife to death with a large butcher knife. In one of the most dramatic scenes in the film, he calmly walks into the local police station, covered from head to toe in blood and tells the officer “I just killed my wife.” He is sentenced to ten years in prison (which is what you get for an ordinary murder in Japan; in Texas he would have gotten life).

The film then fasts forwards eight years. Takuro is leaving prison on parole. The guards give him an eel from the prison fish pond that he has taken care of from birth to take with him. He is given into the care of his parole officer, a Shinto priest who runs a shrine. Takuro has inherited some money from his mother and uses it to open a barber shop in a desolate area near the river. He promptly builds an aquarium for the eel and soon makes friends with some of the locals with whom he continues to pursue the sport of fishing, however, he refuses to kill eels.

While biking along the river he discovers Keiko, unconscious from a suicide attempt. After her release from the hospital, she is also placed under the care of the priest who persuades Takuro to hire her as an assistant at the barber shop. Now things begin to become complicated. Keiko is attracted to Takuro who does not return affection. Even worse, someone knows that he was in prison for murder and begins to anonymously taunt him.

This 1997 Japanese film is a very evenly paced drama with subtlety of character performance. The film is sometimes frustrating to watch and is at times smothering, even claustrophobic. Much of the acting is extremely low key, but that’s what makes the film interesting. You rarely see these types of characters portrayed in American film. This is also a film that lets you explore the influence of Japanese culture within the film itself. For example, a prison has a garden with a fish pond (koi pond). This is not really something that either Americans or Europeans would ever think of constructing in one of their prisons. Other examples are the fact that a Shinto priest is a parole officer, something that would violate American separation of church and state doctrine.

Another example that takes up much of the film is the main character’s stoicism. This is a particularly Japanese trait of having a public face and a private face that is shown only to family and close friends. After working at the barber shop for a time, Keiko begins to drop hints that she is attracted to Takuro. Takuro does not in any way return acknowledgment of them. He pretty much ignores her completely, even when she boldly (for a Japanese) states that she wants to live in the same house as Takuro. Takuro behaves aloofly because of the prevailing Japanese wish to avoid just about any sort of confrontation or tell anyone something that is negative. * It is only when Keiko is hit by her lowlife husband that Takuro shows a response of his repressed feelings toward her.

The script itself is barebones, even has minimalist tendencies. The story is simple and has been used often in the past. As I have stated, this film is very slowly and evenly paced by American standards but is interesting to watch for its examination of its characters and their culture.

* For example, if you went into a store and asked for a Pepsi. If the store was out of Pepsi, the clerk might reply “Perhaps you would like a Coke.” The typical American response would be that if you wanted a Coke you would have asked for it, you want a Pepsi instead. However, the clerk’s response is typically Japanese and another Japanese would immediately know that they were out of Pepsi. The Japanese almost never use the word “no.”

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