In a small town in Japan, a bus is hijacked and a shoot-out with the police leaves the hijacker and several passengers dead. Three people survive, a young brother and sister, Naoki and Kozue, and Makoto Sawai, the bus-driver. All are traumatised by the brutal randomness of the incident and their lives and relationships with other people take a turn for the worst. Makoto moves in with the children and their cousin from Tokyo, but continue to feel isolated from the world. “We need some time to find ourselves”, says Makoto, who buys a bus and takes them on a journey beginning from the scene of the hijack. From there they will try to put their lives back on track – the road trip being an obvious metaphor for their journey to spiritual rehabilitation.
It’s very easy to be critical of the length and pace of this slow three and a half hour film. With Aoyama not only directing, but also writing, editing and even composing the music, it looks like the director has taken on a little too much and has been afraid to relinquish control over any aspect of the film. However, while some takes are certainly slow and extended, I can’t think of a single scene in the film that feels unnecessary. Each scene not only contributes to the overall mood of the film, but develops each of the characters, building on each preceding scene or shot to deepen the impact of the shocking opening scene. After two hours of watching the gradual decline of each of the survivors, you really feel the oppressiveness of their situation and feel their need to get away from the house and out onto the road.
The direction is cool and assured, with carefully framed static scenes and slow smooth pans and tracking shots. At times Eureka resembles an early Wim Wenders road movie, while the emotional baggage it carries reminds one of Atom Egoyan’s The Sweet Hereafter, another film which deals with similar themes of anguish and guilt over a bus incident and its effect on a small town community. Aoyama himself sees the film having a spiritual relationship with John Ford’s The Searchers. Eureka won the International Critics Prize and the Ecumenical Jury Prize at Cannes, 2000.
The first welcome surprise is that the picture is presented in anamorphic 2.35:1 and not 4:3 letterbox as indicated on the cover. Secondly, after some recent disappointments from Artificial Eye, the picture this time is pretty good. Shot in crisp black and white with warm sepia-coloured tints, there is practically no grain on the negative and tones are very good indeed. There is a slight shimmer of digital artefacting to the image, which shows jagged edges on thin horizontal and diagonal lines. Nevertheless, neither this nor the few dust-spots and reel-change marks that are occasionally visible spoil the beautiful photography.
The 2.35:1 image is shifted towards the top of the screen to allow the over-large fixed subtitles to be displayed on the black bar at the bottom of the screen.
The sound is the usual Dolby Digital 2.0 mix and it sounds fine. There are many quiet scenes in the film and there are no distracting noises or hiss on the soundtrack.
All the extras on the DVD are text based. A two-page Director’s statement puts forward the director’s thoughts on the aim of the film. The same statement is contained within the Text interview with Shinji Aoyama, which is less of an interview than the director’s thoughts on various aspects of the film under such headings as Principal themes and Working with actors. The usual and usefully detailed Artificial Eye Filmographies with mini-biographies are included for director Aoyama and principal actor Koji Yakusho (who can be seen currently in Warm Water Under A Red Bridge and the Japanese horror film Kaïro).
Eureka is a strange mix of arthouse road movie and action thriller - long drawn-out scenes of the characters searching for meaning in their lives, co-existing alongside hostage shoot-outs and serial-killer investigations - and I don’t think the film feels entirely comfortable in either of these camps. Yet in a modern Japan still trying to come to terms with such real-life incidents as the Aum sarin attacks on the Tokyo underground, its post-traumatic study of survivors will certainly strike a chord. And now that we all have seen images of hi-jacked planes crashing into New York sky-scrapers on daily news programmes and witnessed the aftermath, the film’s disparate elements don’t seem quite so unconnected as they once might have.