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White-collar worker Yamashita finds out that his wife has a lover visiting her when he's away, suddenly returns home and kills her. After eight years in prison, he returns to live in a small village, opens a barber shop (he was trained as a barber in prison) and talks almost to no-one except for the eel he "befriended" in prison. One day he finds the unconscious body of Keiko, who attempted suicide and reminds him of his wife. She starts to work at his shop, but he doesn't let her become close to him. Written by
Takuro Yamashita, played very effectively by Koji Yakusho, gets an anonymous letter telling him that his young, pretty wife is entertaining another man while he is out fishing at night, this after she lovingly prepares and packs his supper. He goes fishing but returns home early in time to catch her in medias res. In a cold rage he knifes her to death. He bicycles to the police station and turns himself in. Eight years later he gets out of prison. This is where our story begins.
Yamashita, now embittered toward others, especially women, is on parole. He sets up a barber shop in a small town. He keeps a pet eel because he feels that the eel "listens" to him when he talks. One day he discovers a woman (Keiko Hattari, played by the beautiful Misa Shimizu) in some nearby bushes who has taken an overdose in a suicide attempt. He brings the police to her and she is saved. She becomes his helper at the barber shop and is so efficient that the barber shop prospers. She falls in love with him but because of his shame and bitterness, he cannot return her love.
This is a film about human sexuality. It is not pretty. The eel itself (a wet "snake") symbolizes sexuality. When this sexuality is confined it is under control. When it is let loose it is dark and deep and mysterious. Director Shohei Imamura's technique is plodding at times, and striking at others. His women are aggressive sexually even though they may look like little girls. His men can be brutal. Their emotions, confined by society as the eel is confined by its tank, sometimes burst out violently.
For many viewers the pace of this film will be too slow, and for others the sexuality depicted will offend. For myself and others who are accustomed to seeing the faces of the players in long close ups on TV and in Western movies, Imamura's medium shots and disinclination to linger on the countenances of his actors will disappoint. Yakusho's face suggests the very depth and mystery that Imamura is aiming at, yet I don't think the camera lingers there enough. Also disappointing is how little we really see of Misa Shimizu's expressions. Chiho Terada, who plays the murdered wife, is also very pretty and completely convincing, but we see little of her. Her expression just before dying, a combination of shamelessness and resignation, funereal acceptance even, was unforgettable.
This is very much worth seeing, but expect to be annoyed by the how slowly it unravels and by the central character's stubborn refusal to forgive both himself and his late wife and his inability to embrace the life that is now his.
(Note: Over 500 of my movie reviews are now available in my book "Cut to the Chaise Lounge or I Can't Believe I Swallowed the Remote!" Get it at Amazon!)
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