Unagi: A movie about flawed human beings that seems very good while it is watched and even better in retrospect

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Adapted from the novel Yami Ni Hirameku (Sparkles in the Dark) by Yoshimura Akira, the 1997 Imamura movie “Unagi” (“The Eel“) is quirky. It is, however, nowhere near to being as perverse as Oshima Nagisa’s “In the Realm of the Senses,” although, like it, “Unagi” hinges on a “crime of passion.”

Tipped off by an anonymous letter, Tokyo salaryman (in a flour company) Yamashita (Yakusho Kôji [Shall We Dance?]) finds his wife passionately responding to another man when he returns early from his weekly Friday night fishing foray. Not only is she two-timing him, but she is much more passionate with her lover than she has ever been with him. He (very graphically) stabs her to death. Covered with blood, he dutifully bicycles to the police station to confess. He becomes a model prisoner, internalizing all the rules, learning to be a barber, and keeping a pet eel in the prison pond.

When he is released (physically released), he takes the eel and sets up a barber shop in the middle of nowhere (seemingly at the end of a road on the seacoast with no immediate neighbors). On the side of the road he discovers the unconscious body of a Tokyo woman who was trying to kill herself (with pills). After her stomach is pumped, Hatter Seiko (Shimizu Misa [Okogé]) stays with the Buddhist priest (Fujio Tsuneta) who is Yamashita’s parole officer. After she insinuates herself into working at the barbershop, it becomes a success.

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Afraid of himself (specifically that love will lead to infidelity and murder again) Yamashita resists her advances, and prefers his eel (which never tells him what he doesn’t want to hear and always listens to what he says… and never takes up with another man, or even with another eel, being all alone in his aquarium). He says he has had his fill with women, and prefers his eel.

Both Yamashita’s and Keiko’s pasts comes back to harass them: the love story between a man and his eel turns neo-noir—a quite effective noir plot, in fact (with some of the droll comedy one associates with yakuza violence in movies of Takahashi Kitano). There is also a very shy local man (Kobayashi Ken) who is trying to draw a UFO to land, borrowing the barber pole at night in a landing field that he has cleared. And a sinister ex-con garbage man, Takasaki (Emoto Akira), and a geriatric Carmen (Keiko’s demented mother played by Ichihara Etsuko).

Despite its bleak setting, damaged psyches, and outbreaks of violence, the movie has a lot of wry comedy (and some surrealistic dreams). It shows great compassion for an unusual mix of characters and ends hopefully. (I do not think that the main arc of Yamashita’s engageme with the world gets lost in the various comic touches and I enjoyed the unrushed way the stories unfold. It felt rich “thoughtful” rather than “slow-paced” to me.)

The viewer also learns about the life cycle of eels (traveling 2000 km to breed with many dying on the way back to the mud of Japan). The extent to which an eel’s life is a symbol or metaphor I will not opine about (beyond appropriating from their habitat for my title anyway…) though I recall that in “The Pornographers” there was a large goldfish in an aquarium that the owner of which believed the fish was the reincarnation of a dead spouse. (The star of “The Pornographers,” Ozawa Shoichi, has a cameo in “Unagi” as a physician, BTW.)

Komatsubara Shigeru s cinematography is varied in palette, but never less than superb. (Komatsubara shot “Black Rain” and  also shot Imamura’s two subsequent feature films, “Kanzo sensei” (Dr. Akagi, 1998) and “Warm Water Under a Red Bridge” (2001, also starring Yakusho Kôji), neither of which I have seen.)

The movie won the Palme D’or at Cannes and many Japan Academy Awards, including best director (Imamura) and best actor (Yakusho). (Miyazaki’s anime “Princess Mononoke” won “best picture” and Kimura Daisaku won the cinematography award for “Yukai” (Abduction), which is unavailable here for comparison and second-guessing.)

The New Yorker DVD has a satisfactory visual and aural transfer, but no bonus features (I don’t consider optional subtitles and indexing “bonuses” but bare bones.)

 

The movie seemed good to me while I was watching it, but it seems even better to me than it did in retrospect of a few weeks.

 

©2016, Stephen O. Murray

 

 

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