The Eel

Saturday, May 24, 1997

Author: Gerow, Aaron
Japanase Title: Unagi
Director: Imamura Shohei
Release Date: May 24, 1997


  • Production Company: Eisei Gekijo Co., Ltd., KSS Inc.
  • Release: 24 May 1997
  • Length: 117 min.
  • Format: 35 mm; 1:1.85
  • Color: Color


  • Director: Imamura Shohei
  • Producer: Iino Hisa
  • Screenplay: Tomikawa Motofumi, Tengan Daisuke, Imamura Shohei
  • Original Story: Yoshimura Akira
  • Photography: Komatsubara Shigeru
  • Music: Ikebe Shin’ichiro
  • Art Director: Inagaki Hisao
  • Editor: Okayasu Hajime


  • Yamashita Takuro: Yakusho Koji
  • Hattori Keiko: Shimizu Misa
  • Nakajima Misako: Baisho Mitsuko
  • Nakajima Jiro: Tsuneda Fujio
  • Takata Jukichi: Sato Makoto
  • Nozawa Yuji: Aikawa Sho
  • Dojima Eiji: Taguchi Tomoro
  • Takasaki Tamotsu: Emoto Akira
  • Hattori Fumie: Ichihara Etsuko
  • Old doctor: Ozawa Shoichi

“The Eel” - A Slippery Slide into Sentimentality

When Japan was experiencing its period of high economic growth in the 1960s and 1970s - developing into a modern, consumer society of comfort and technology - Imamura Shohei was there to remind Japanese that they were still human, a state for him not far removed from the earthy and irrational world of animals and insects.

But now that it’s 1997 and a virtual reality of images and the Internet has seemed to overcome the material world, is there anything new the 70-year-old director can tell us?

The Eel, his first film in eight years since Black Rain (“Kuroi ame,” 1989) and winner of the Palme d’Or at this year’s Cannes Film Festival, returns to one of his favorite symbols of humanity’s brutish nature: the murderer. Yamashita Takuro (Yakusho Koji) is a run-of-the-mill office worker who receives an anonymous letter divulging that his wife is having an affair. Pretending to go on a long fishing trip, he returns early to find her having sex with another man and brutally stabs her to death.

Eight years later, Yamashita is paroled from prison. He is a model of good conduct, but one so distrustful of other people his only friend is the pet eel he takes with him from prison. With the help of an old benefactor, he sets up a barber shop in a coastal town but refuses to involve himself in the affairs of others.

But it is when he finds a young woman named Keiko (Shimizu Misa) trying to commit suicide that he begins to break out of his shell. He not only saves her, but ends up hiring her at his shop. Love even begins to blossom until two obstacles present themselves: her former lover, a shady loan-shark (Taguchi Tomoro) bent on getting her back; and a former cellmate, Takasaki (Emoto Akira), who out of jealousy begins a smear campaign against Yamashita. They eventually force him to choose between the world of people and the world of eels.

While the thrust of the story is Yamashita’s resocialization, Imamura’s question throughout is how this mild-mannered, loving husband could so brutally kill his wife . Here Yamashita’s friendship with the eel does not merely signal his aversion to others, or even his gentleness (as he refuses to kill eels with his friend Takada (Sato Makoto)), but also his connection to the more animal instincts even he doesn’t understand.

The eel in fact is intimately tied in the film to both the mysterious letter, possibly a figment of Yamashita’s jealous imagination, and the fire-and-brimstone spouting Takasaki, who acts the avatar of a primitive god of revenge and punishment. It is also in many ways the replacement of his wife, her rebirth in another plane of existence. Releasing it then becomes the only way Yamashita can transcend his brutal past and reenter the human community.

The eel reminds one of the carp in Imamura’s The Pornographers (“Jinruigaku nyumon,” 1966), which was both the reincarnation of the landlady’s dead husband and a reminder of a more ancient order, when human beings were no higher than the beasts around them. The Eel’s link to The Pornographers is emphasized in the casting of that film’s star, Ozawa Shoichi, in a small role here.

But this similarity makes one wonder if Imamura has really altered his approach to deal with different times. The film’s use of voice-overs, flashbacks, and double-exposures is actually so old-fashioned, The Eel looks quite out of place in the nineties.

The film is Imamura’s attempt to return to more familiar territory, but in a landscape whose topography has changed through earth-shaking events. His exposure of human nature’s dark side made sense for audiences that still remembered the reality of wartime brutality and postwar poverty. But in an era where that world seems so far away, Imamura’s approach looks simply like nostalgia for the hard but good old days; a comedic vision, but one lacking the director’s patented black humor. Perhaps it is for that reason that The Eel slides at the end into a sentimental affirmation of community rarely seen in Imamura’s past films. While still tinged with irony - Yamashita’s release of the mother eel is in many ways just a sign he’s found another pregnant eel in Keiko - Yamashita’s choice, supported by a collection of characters all essentially good, makes the film’s last few minutes look suspiciously like Suo Masayuki, or worse, Yamada Yoji.

An all-together enjoyable film, The Eel is never the deliciously slippery and slimy critique of contemporary Japan a young Imamura could have caught on film.

Reviewed by Aaron Gerow

Originally appeared in The Daily Yomiuri, 22 May 1997, p. 9.

Copyright 1997: The Daily Yomiuri and Aaron Gerow