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Eel, The

Unagi

Like Francis Coppola and Erim Kusturica, the great Japanese director Shohei Imamura has won the main prize at the Cannes Film Festival twice, most recently in 1997 with this characteristically unruly tale of an ex-con setting up in a provincial barbershop. Coming eight years after his previous offering, the A-bomb reconstruction Black Rain, it proved that 71-year-old Imamura wasn’t finished yet, even though this former assistant to Ozu had started his directorial career in the ’50s. Since then Imamura’s output has ranged through socially incisive drama, pioneering docu-fiction, and visceral peasant sagas (including 1983’s Cannes victor The Ballad of Narayama), but the most familiar sight in The Eel may well be contemporary Japanese cinema’s leading male star, Yakusho Koji, enormously sympathetic in the likes of Shall We Dance? and Eureka.
Indeed, it’s quite a shock moments into The Eel when he catches his wife in flagrante and frenziedly stabs her to death, before calmly turning himself in to the police. Eight years later and he’s out on parole, supervised by a kindly Buddhist priest, and although the barber’s shop offers him a new start, this taciturn individual confides only in the pet eel he’s brought from prison. From this scenario, Imamura weaves upwards and outwards, taking in a lovably disreputable coterie of customers, potentially redeeming romance (which comes with complications), an underlying thread of male sexual anxiety, untrustworthy dream sequences and the inscrutable presence of the eel itself. For a movie apparently pulling in several directions at once, it’s surprisingly touching, decidedly frolicsome, and infinitely refreshing. Very Imamura.oTrevor Johnston.

Japan, 1997. English subtitles. Colour. 117 mins.
Imamura’s new film ‘Warm Water Under a Red Bridge’ is also showing in this programme.

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