- Document type
- 10 July 2001
- Format viewed
- Original title
- Shohei IMAMURA
- Koji YAKUSHO
- Misa SHIMIZU
- Akira EMOTO
- Sho AIKAWA
- Tomorowo TAGUCHI
- Running time
- 117 mins.
Businessman Yamashita receives an anonymous letter, telling him that a strange man visits his wife whenever he's out at night fishing. After pondering for a long time, he sets out for the seaside one night with the intention of returning early and finding out the truth. Indeed he finds his wife in bed with a stranger, enjoying herself with an abandon Yamashita has never experienced. In a daze, he enters the bedroom with a knife in his hand and kills his wife. Several hours later he walks into the police station, covered in her blood, and turns himself in.
After serving eight years in prison, he is released into the care of his parole officer, an elderly priest who brings him to his home town and introduces him to a deserted barber shop. There the former salaryman can ply the new trade he learnt in captivity. Upon his release, Yamashita takes with him only the clothes on his back and the eel that he raised in the prison pond. To the institutionalised and alienated Yamashita, the eel serves as a way to avoid communicating with others. But the men of the small, desolate town soon start frequenting his shop, mostly because they have nothing better to do, and a circle of friends quickly forms around the shy, reluctant barber.
While out fishing, he saves the life of Keiko, a woman attempting to commit suicide after a disastrous relationship with a scheming boyfriend who used her to get to her mother's money. This act may put Yamashita right in the cosmic scheme of things - he took a life and saved one - but for himself things are more complicated. It does however prove to be the turning point. A few days later, Keiko is assisting him in his barbershop and the possibility of something resembling a normal life is opening up to him. He's not too eager to embrace it, but since both are carrying the weight of a dark past, a bond inevitably forms which grows stronger when both their pasts come back to haunt them.
In his case it's a fellow convict who has been put to work as the local garbage man and who threatens to spill the beans on Yamashita's past. In her case, freeloading boyfriend Dojima is back with several cronies, a lawyer and a demand for money.
For a study of one man's emotions, Unagi seems to make little effort to penetrate its protagonist's mind. As in real life, his behavior is our only lead. Occasional voice-overs provide glimpses into Yamashita's psyche, but Imamura's method of detailing the inner life of his protagonist is done in a rather more indirect fashion, with extensive use of symbolism. The most obvious example is the eel, who in a parallel to Yamashita lives a lonesome sheltered life in his tank, without the need or the will to communicate with the outside world (the metaphor is somewhat redundantly explained in the final moments of the film). Rather more interestingly executed is the character of local garbage man and fellow convict Tamasaki, who serves as the personification of Yamashita's insecurities and self-doubt. His behaviour and actions are irrational and erratic, and when he pops up trouble is never far off.
Imamura gives us some interesting casting choices, particularly in selecting Sho Aikawa, better known for his appearances in countless straight-to-video yakuza movies, to play one of Yamashita's newly-found friends. Performances are terrific all around, with Yakusho as the stand-out center point. 1997 was the breakthrough year for the former stage actor, who appeared in a string of commercial, critical or controversial successes, including Masayuki Suo's Shall We Dance?, Kiyoshi Kurosawa's Cure and Yoshimitsu Morita's Lost Paradise (Shitsurakuen).
Based on a novel by Akira Yoshimura and scripted by Imamura and his son Daisuke Tengan (screenwiter of Takashi Miike's Audition, 1999) Unagi won its director his second Palme d'Or at the Cannes Film Festival, after The Ballad of Narayama in 1983. Imamura himself declined the invitation and preferred to stay in Japan, leaving ceremonial duties to lead actor Koji Yakusho. This move was widely seen as a snub, but it didn't stop the festival organizers from selecting his latest film Warm Water Under a Red Bridge (Akai Hashi No Shitano Nuruimizu) for the competition in 2001.
As a result of the award, Unagi received widespread distribution and critical acclaim. Both are richly deserved, because this is a film that manages to be both poignant and funny. Its combination of the quirky and absurd on the one hand and the dramatic on the other works wonderfully well, creating a film which is touching and human, and which endears as much as it fascinates.
New Yorker Video (USA)
Region 1. English subtitles.
AV Channel (Australia)
Region 4. English subtitles.
Region 3. English, Korean subtitles.
Complete edition. Region 2. No subtitles.
Xin Sheng Dai (Taiwan)
Region 3. Chinese subtitles.