The Eel Review
was Shohei Imamura’s sixteenth feature film (excluding his made-for-television documentaries from the seventies) and the second to earn him a Palme d’Or. Made just as the director was turning seventy, this doesn’t particularly strike the viewer as an ‘old man’s picture’. Its tale is one of sex, death, murder, attempted suicide and mental illness. Any signs that Imamura was mellowing in his advanced years is distinctly lacking. Indeed, this is cinema as salty and strange as his best work, unafraid to head off into darker territory or to do so with an offbeat comic touch. Throughout The Eel we are prompted to recall Imamura’s earlier features: there are trace elements of Vengeance is Mine, Profound Desire of the Gods, even that quirky sophomore effort recently revived by Masters of Cinema, Nishi-Ginza Station.
Things being quietly, calmly, perhaps even coldly. A salaryman receives an anonymous letter informing him that his wife is having an affair, in his house, whilst he goes on his overnight fishing trips. Tonight being the night of one those fishing trips, he returns home much earlier than usual to discover that the claims in the letter are indeed true. Quite literally seeing red, he murders his wife by repeatedly stabbing her, but lets the man run to safety. He then cycles his way to the nearest police station and hands himself in: “I just killed my wife. This is the weapon I used.”
The salaryman is played by Koji Yakusho. At the time of The Eel’s theatrical release he would have been fresh in the minds of audiences from both Japan and the West as the lead in Shall We Dance?. He’s subsequently worked with the likes of Kiyoshi Kurosawa and Takeshi Miike, but during 1998 there must have been a definite effect in seeing the salaryman-turned-ballroom dancer of the earlier crowd pleaser now portraying a salaryman-turned-wife killer. Imamura gives us no hints of what is to come during those opening minutes: the style is as matter-of-fact as it was in his other tale of a murderer, Vengeance is Mine. The squeak of Yakusho’s bicycle wheel, for example, as he heads towards the police station is a typically mundane detail few other directors would consider. Meanwhile, the tense scoring only figures once blood is quite literally on the lens. So far, so subversive - and The Eel’s title screen hasn’t even appeared yet.
Fast-forward eight years and Yakusho’s character is placed on parole, under the guidance of a reverend in a small fishing village. During his sentence he’d taken to conversing with an eel who resided in the prison’s pond. As an act of goodwill one of the guards presents him the fish on his departure so that the conversations may continue: “It listens to what I have to say, and doesn’t say what I don’t want to hear.” Any suggestion that he’s a man to keep himself to himself is firmly backed up once he arrives at his new home. The villagers, unaware of his past, dub him an “odd guy” and “bloody unsociable”, though this never prevents him from installing himself as the local barber after doing up an abandoned shop. As with the island of oddballs in Profound Desire of the Gods - each caught up in their own worlds - so too this tiny fishing village seems populated solely by nuts. One is obsessed with UFOs and hopes to attract his own visitors, another is a fellow ex-prisoner prone to fits of violence. There is also just a single female in the area, though she’s attempting suicide just one scene after we (and Yakusho) first encounter her.
Whilst it may start out with murder and failed suicide, The Eel slowly softens up as things progress and heads into a gentler, even comic areas. In part the film becomes almost a love story as Yakusho and the woman he has saved become close friends and colleagues as she takes a job at his barber’s shop. I say almost as there’s too much fear on their part to ever make this work. His last relationship ended in murder and now he talks to an eel rather than opening up to her. She tried to kill herself as she “fell in love with the wrong man”. Both these incidents also have their own backstories which are forever trying to invade or creep into the drama, ultimately giving it its shape.
The end result is as wayward in incident and tone as all of this hopefully suggests, and it remains wholly wonderful that Imamura was producing work as distinctive and demanding at the age of seventy. (He still had two more features in him too: 1998’s Dr. Akagi and 2001’s Warm Water Under a Red Bridge, both of which are as gleefully strange as anything he put his name to, especially the latter.) Arguably the overall command isn’t quite there as it once was - some of the minor plot strands have less of an impact and could have been snipped outright - though I should point out that such a judgement is no doubt clouded by my recent (re)acquaintances with the director’s earlier work. The Masters of Cinema range has been putting a lot of effort into Imamura of late, allow us to sample many of his finest features in excellent condition: The Insect Woman, Pigs and Battleships, A Man Vanishes, The Battle of Narayama, Stolen Desire and those already mentioned in this review. For all its quirks and qualities, The Eel falls just that little bit short in the face of such competition.
Sadly, so too does this new DVD from Artificial Eye. Masters of Cinema’s Imamura discs have offered up seven Imamuras in HD, with only A Man Vanishes deemed not quite good enough for Blu-ray. Anyone hoping that The Eel would receive an equivalent presentation will be sorely disappointed as this disc appears to be a pretty much direct equivalent of the old Region 1 offering from New Yorker released in 2001. The film retains its original aspect ratio but is presented without anamorphic enhancement and also suffers from being an NTSC-PAL standards conversion. The original source is a print in mostly decent condition (the ‘cigarette burns’ are apparent, but damage is at a minimum) though I suspect the colours are a little more muted than originally intended. Imamura and his cinematographer Shigeru Komatsubara - who’d previously collaborated on the director’s other Palme d’Or winner, The Ballad of Narayama - clearly meant for a slightly washed out look, but arguably not to this degree. The English subtitles are optional and are positioned so as not to hinder a zooming-in of the image. The soundtrack, meanwhile, presents the original mono in DD2.0 without any particular difficulty or problem. Shinichiro Ikebe’s score comes across well and the dialogue is consistently clear. Unfortunately, no extras. I suspect, given the delays on this release, that Artificial Eye had hoped to offer something better, but simply had to make do. As such The Eel is finally out on DVD in UK - which may be enticement enough for many - though be warned that it has its problems.