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The Eel

The Eel

By Arpad Lukacs • March 18th, 2012
Static Mass Rating: 4/5
Artificial Eye

Release date: February 27th 2012
Certificate: 18
Running time: 117 minutes

Year of production: 1997

Country of origin: Japan
Original language: Japanese with English subtitles

Director: Shohei Imamura
Writers: Shohei Imamura, Daisuke Tengan, Motofumi Tomikawa, Akira Yoshimura (novel)

Cast: Koji Yakusho, Misa Shimizu, Chiho Terada

In 1876, professor Carl Claus, a zoologist offered a young student, named Sigmund Freud, the chance to travel to a zoological research station in the city of Trieste to take on a project to develop scientific research skills.

Freud’s task was to study eels; these mysterious creatures of the sea had puzzled scientists for centuries. While Eels produced offspring, no one understood their method of procreation. A young and determined Freud ended up dissecting no less than 400 eels and could not find a single one with a developed male organ.

The Eel

Freud must have been almost as frustrated in his failed search of a male organ as mild-mannered Japanese salary man Takuro Yamashita (Koji Yakusho), in director Shohei Imamura’s 1997 film The Eel.

Takuro’s frustration begin to manifest with an anonymous note telling him that his wife (Chiho Terada) is being unfaithful to him. Learning not only that, but also the specifics of when and where Emiko spends her time with another man, he decides to see it for himself. When I say Takuro is mild-mannered, I really mean that; the scene where he finds Emiko in the act of cheating is not only disturbing, because he brutally murders her by stabbing her multiple times, but also because he does this without showing any emotion whatsoever. While we should assume that he loses his temper, no trace of anger can be seen or felt – which marks Takuro’s character as distant and sinister right away; already painting the portrait of a man who has learned to repress.

After the killing, he calmly walks into a police station and gives himself up.

Being really well-behaved in prison, Takuro is released on parole after eight years and he is joined by the pet he was allowed to keep while locked up: his companion is an eel of all animals. They start a new life in a small village where Takuro utilises his prison training and opens a barber shop.

The Eel

I’m sure I won’t surprise anyone when I say that The Eel is a film where we do not relate to the protagonist. This isn’t necessarily a reason for criticism; there are films that were made, not for us to feel or identify with the lead character(s), but to study and evaluate them. To name a few, Taxi Driver (1976), American Psycho (2000), Man Bites Dog (1992) and Monster (2003) all put us in the mind-set of disturbed individuals, for better or worse.

A risky technique from the filmmaker’s point of view – the attempted assassination of Ronald Reagan in 1981 by John Hinckley, Jr. was spawned by Taxi Driver – but when it works, it can give us a profound insight into darker traits of the human soul. I always find it’s unpleasant to see this type of film, but sometimes I end up thinking it was worth it.

The Eel

Shohei Imamura gave me a lot to think about. The Eel is an intriguing study of male insecurities and repression riddled with metaphors and explored through Takuro’s relationship with his eel, and later in contrast to that, his relationship with Keiko (Misa Shimizu), a young woman whom he saves after a suicide attempt.

Imamura portrays Takuro in a strikingly straightforward manner, exposing his flaws and weaknesses. The only quality we can appreciate about the character is his post-prison lack of interest in women. Takuro is still sane enough to see that he should avoid relationships altogether and re-channels his energy towards the eel – which I’m fairly certain, has not yet developed a male organ.

I was not too keen on Keiko’s character development in the film. At first her fascination with the quiet and mild-mannered Takuro is understandable as she mistakes his repressed emotions for mystery and intrigue. She keeps trying to get close to Takuro who repeatedly rejects her in a ‘visual fishing metaphor’ involving a bridge, a boat and lunch in a basket that I found absolutely fascinating. But later Keiko does get to find out more about Takuro and it does not deter her a bit, which makes her character submissive and most certainly very naïve. Her backstory, while quite lengthy and detailed adds, very little justification for this behaviour.

The Eel

I enjoyed dissecting this film as much as Freud must have enjoyed dissecting those 400 eels in search of masculinity and I would never dismiss a movie that deals with gender identity through interesting ideas. The Eel was nevertheless somewhat dull, if I’m being perfectly honest.

It had some fascinating filmmaking moments, like Takuro looking at a street lamp having just discovered and witnessed his wife cheating on him; the lamp turns red as he makes a fateful decision. I felt a touch of Hitchcock there. There are brilliant moments like that occurring sporadically throughout accompanied by wonderfully haunting music to let us hear the mind of this repressed man, but the film falls somewhat short on dealing with its female protagonist.

I would certainly recommend The Eel to anyone interested in gender identity and cinema, but others will probably find that it drags on a bit too long.

Arpad Lukacs

Arpad Lukacs

Arpad is a Film Studies graduate and passionate photographer (he picked up the camera and started taking stills just as he began his studies of moving pictures). He admires directors that can tell a story first of all in images. More or less inevitably, Brian De Palma has become Aprad’s favourite filmmaker.

Then there’s Arpad’s interest in anime. He was just a boy when he saw Nausicaä of the Valley of the Wind on an old VHS and was hypnotised by the story of friendship, devotion and sacrifice. He still marvels at the uncompromising and courageous storytelling in Japanese anime, and wonders about the western audience with its ever growing appetite for “Japanemation”.

Have a look at Arpad's photography site, and you can follow him on Twitter @arpadlukacs.

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