The Eel is a very confused movie that has the best of intentions, but it’s a shame about the script. It's saddening, since The Eel was not made by some tyro but by Shohei Imamura, one of Japan's best directors of thoughtful movies about adult characters. He gave us Vengeance Is Mine, arguably the best movie ever made about the psychology of a serial killer; Black Rain, a chilling portrait of the survivors of the atomic bomb in Japan; and The Pornographers, a highly sardonic look at Japan's sexual underworld. He also gave us the controversial History of Postwar Japan as Told by a Bar Hostess, which divided critics as to whether it was farce or a serious sort of post-modern journalism.
All of these movies were smart and deftly made. The Eel is neither of these things; it's filled with the sorts of conceptual mistakes that an amateur filmmaker would avoid, and its philosophy is thimble-deep at best. And yet somehow it's garnered an incredible amount of critical acclaim. Thomas Weisser, usually one to sniff out a pretentious dud, gave the movie a three-star rating in his Japanese Cinema: Essential Handbook. The film garnered the Palme d'Or at Cannes in 1997, beating out the far superior L.A. Confidential and The Sweet Hereafter, and appeared on dozens of critics' Ten Best lists for that year. Is it that people are unwilling to single out mistakes in a foreign film that would be blasted on sight if it was in their own language? If nothing else it serves as a perfect example of how foreign audiences can be easily hoodwinked by what only looks profound from the outside.
The Eel opens with Takuro (Koji Yakusho), a salaryman who works for a nondescript Tokyo company, heading home on the subway. (As in almost every movie set in Tokyo, he's jammed up against the glass; this sort of thing was cute the first couple of times but it's become a cliché.) He reads a letter sent to him by an unknown woman telling him that his normally prim-and-proper wife has been having a torrid affair while he's been off on his evening fishing expeditions. Takuro returns home that night to find his wife in bed with the man and stabs her to death, soaking the camera lens with gore. All of this is done to some of the most hideously ill-fitting music in any movie in recent memory. Takuro then turns himself in and is sentenced to eight years in prison. Upon his release, he's become cold and closed-off. The only connection he has in the world is to an eel that he befriended while in prison. He talks to the eel, and the eel talks back to him — or so he says — and tells him only what he wants to hear.
Eventually he takes over what's left of an old barbershop, renovates it, and gets to work. He gets few customers, and most of the locals think of him (rightfully) as being a weirdo. Most of his spare time is spent fishing. The only one who's friendly is a local cooper who takes him eel-hunting, a scene which ends in Takuro having nightmares about seeing an eel speared. The scene with the nightmare is so badly acted and filmed it almost derails the whole movie; it's the sort of thing that wouldn't clear customs in a TV Movie of the Week. Eventually the cooper gives him an eel trap that's non-violent.
One day while looking for eel food, Takuro happens across the unconscious form of Keiko (Misa Shimizu). With the words of his parole officer echoing in his ears ("Don't get into trouble!"), he brings help and the girl is saved from an apparent suicide attempt. In gratitude, she offers her services at his shop, but there's little for her to do, and he's not exactly tactful about it. Takuro doesn't talk about his past; Keiko only hints at the reasons she attempted suicide.
Much to his chagrin, the two of them are apparently an item in the nearby town after only a month's time. Takuro's loneliness is paralleled with another local who wants to use the barberpole as a way to attract UFOs. "You talk to your eel because you don't like people, right?" he is asked, but again the parallel is so inept that it simply looks foolish. Sure enough, Takuro and Keiko grow closer together over time, despite his denials, and her secrets come spilling out. She's pregnant, for one (something that becomes blatantly obvious). Then her abusive former boyfriend (Tomoroh Taguchi) shows up, and the plot goes from strained to flat-out preposterous, involving Keiko's nutty mother and some missing money.
The movie's full of little things that break what little covenant we can build up with it. Example: Takuro is shown goose-stepping in prison as part of the routine. When he's released, he follows his parole officer a little too closely, and with a walk that's reminiscent of the goose-step without actually being that way. The parole officer asks him what's wrong. So far, so good. But then Imamura destroys the moment by forcing a shot of other prisoners goose-stepping, and even goes so far as to give us a voice-over explaining what was going on. It's as if he doesn't trust himself or his audience to figure anything out. Worse, there's a scene later where a bunch of recruits go jogging by. Takuro compulsively falls into step with them, like some publicity hound trying to be seen in the Macy's Thanksgiving Day parade.
The whole movie is similarly forced and unconvincing. Another example: If the eel was the only thing he cared about, why does Imamura give us a shot of the guards rushing to give it to him in a plastic bag seconds before he leaves the prison? Unless he didn't think he would be allowed to take it with him, but never mind — the movie's so fixated on its futile attempts at message and symbolism that it forgets about genuine psychology. Takuro feels less like a character and more like a convenience of the script. The end of the film is an absolute mess, with not one but two brawls in the barbershop and a deus ex machina involving the money (and many other things) that convinced me that plot thread never deserved to be there in the first place.
Perhaps the most telling comment of all came from the director himself, as related by Tom Weisser in one of his Asian cinema guidebooks. While Imamura was at Cannes he grew unhappy and declared, "I can't compete with all of the big-budget entries here, and I'm not happy with the way my movie looks. I'm going home." He left the festival, and it was up to Koji Yakusho to accept the award on his behalf. When Imamura heard the news, his response was "There must have been some mistake. They should recount the ballots." He was probably right.
Note: The novel used as the source material for this movie, On Parole, is so much better than the resulting film that one wonders what exactly went wrong. It is possible to see some of the original plot elements and themes floating around in the film, like so many hacked-off body parts, but the book itself deserves a more faithful and less bathetic adaptation.