The Eel

Those turned off by the gruesome violence that begins Shohei Imamura's The Eel, winner of the 1997 Palme d'Or at Cannes, will miss out on a generally lighthearted tale of romance and loyalty. After receiving an anonymous letter attesting to his wife's infidelities, Koji Yakusho cuts short his all-night fishing trip and returns home to catch his wife in the act, at which point he slaughters her with a big butcher knife. Still covered with blood from head to toe, Yakusho rides his bike to the police station, where he confesses his crime and is sent to prison. Eight years pass and he's released on parole, leaving jail with his pet eel in tow. Why an eel? Because "it listens to what I have to say, and doesn't say what I don't want to hear." Yakusho and his pet are set up by his parole officer in a rural seaside community, where Yakusho opens a barber shop to service the town's eccentric blowhards, bullshitters, and UFO enthusiasts. But a suicidal girl (Misa Shimizu) who bears a resemblance to his wife brings back bad memories, as does a recalcitrant ex-prisoner who is jealous of Yakusho's apparent rehabilitation. Yakusho's intriguingly reserved acting and mournful face keep this generally slow-moving film interesting, even if the relationship between him and his serpentine companion is never satisfactorily developed. Furthermore, the repressed romance between Yakusho and Shimizu should be at the heart of The Eel (Unagi in Japanese), so you may wonder why a generic subplot involving Shimizu's treacherous ex-boyfriend and co-worker was even needed. Pointless conflict aside, The Eel is a thoughtful film, oddly touching despite its quirks.

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