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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
Takura Yamashita (Koji Yakusho) has served eight years in prison for murdering his wife and her lover in a jealous rage and attempts to rehabilitate himself by opening a barbershop in an isolated corner of Japan. His past, however, catches up with him in Shohei Imamura's The Eel, co-winner of the 1997 Cannes Palme D'or with Kiarostami's A Taste of Cherry. Based on the Akira Yoshimura's novel Sparkles in the Darkness, The Eel is either an absurdist comedy, a drama about redemption, a surreal poem about states of consciousness, a thriller about jealousy and revenge, or all of the above.
As the film opens, Yamashita, a worker at a large flour company, is startled to read an anonymous letter on the train coming home from work informing him that his wife cheats on him when he goes away on overnight fishing trips. Cutting one of his trips short, he returns home in the middle of the night to find his wife Emiko (Chiho Terada) in bed with a lover. Grabbing a butcher knife, he brutally stabs both of them to death then calmly rides his bicycle to the local police station and turns himself in. After eight years in prison, he is released and paroled to an elderly Buddhist priest. Alienated and afraid, Yamashita's only companion is a pet eel whom he confides in ("he listens to what I say"). He opens a barbershop in a rural part of Japan but his life becomes complicated after he saves a young woman, Keiko (Misa Shimizu), from suicide and gives her a job at his shop. Reminded of his former wife, Yamashita avoids intimacy but she is drawn to him nonetheless and offers him box lunches when he goes fishing.
In spite of trying to keep his distance, Yamashita attracts some local characters that move the plot in a different direction. These include a young man who borrows his barber pole to attract UFOs, a fishing buddy who designs a device to catch eels without harming them, and his former prison mate, Tamotsu Takasaki (Akira Emoto), a foul-mouthed drunk who recites Buddhist Sutras and reminds him of his previous acts. The story, which until now has had a rich dramatic arc, soon descends into forced comedy when Keiko's mentally-challenged mother shows up doing flamenco dances and Keiko's former boyfriend returns demanding her mother's money. The townspeople and semi-gangster associates of the boyfriend join in a final free-for-all at the barbershop that might have been lifted from the Three Stooges.
The Eel is at times a brilliant and involving character study about a man seeking to turn his life around. At other times, however, it is a discordant conglomeration of plots and subplots, one-dimensional characters, and heavy symbolism relieved only by wooden farce. The UFO sequence is very lame and the comic behavior of a man just out of prison seems inappropriate as he marches like a soldier then runs after a jogging team that is passing by. Imamura has said, "If my films are messy, this is probably due to the fact that I don't like too perfect a cinema." I know that things are not always neat and our lives are often a blend of drama and farce, but The Eel's odd mixture of quirky characters and widely disparate elements keeps it from coming together as a satisfying whole.
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