Prior to the 1997 feature "The Eel", the only other film of Shohei Imamura that I had seen was "Eijanika". This 1981 masterpiece was set during the Edo era, when local warlords battled the emperor for control of the country. All of Japan is under cultural pressure from the West. Political loyalties and personal loves disintegrate--the only certainty is money. The major characters, who live a sort of desperate lumpen existence, find themselves through the Eijanaika ("What the hell?") riots which can be likened to a Mardi Gras with a death-wish. The violent concluding scenes will remind you of a Bosch or Breughel painting as the frenzied slum dwellers are confronted by the Emperor's soldiers.
At first, there would seem to be little connection with "The Eel", which is set in modern-day Japan and concerns the fates of a paroled wife-killer, the women who is drawn to him despite his past, and the eccentric characters in an obscure riverfront town where they dwell.
Arguably, the common thread in both films is Imamura's affection for the peripheral members of society, who appear to have nothing in common with Japan's successful but harried "salary men," nor the ceremonious world of classic Japanese cinema where samurai codes of honor predominate.
Imamura once said "I am interested in the relationship of the lower part of the human body and the lower part of the social structure." Hence his bawdy tales of working class survival, dramatized with Bunuel-like audacity, revolve around the survival instinct.
Imamura was the son of a doctor, who attended university during World War II. The postwar years found him dabbling in the black market, coming in contact with the lower-depths types who would figure in his films.
In "The Eel" we are introduced to Takuro Yamashita (Koji Yakusho), a "salary man" who reads an anonymous letter on the train home informing him that his wife has been committing adultery, particularly when he goes on overnight fishing trips. Her lover drives a white sedan. After returning early from one such fishing trip, he finds her having sex with her lover and stabs both to death. He rides his bike to the local police station and confesses.
Eight years later he's released from prison. A Buddhist priest, who is his parole officer, is not sure what to make of Yamashita who carries a pet eel in a plastic bag as if it were a goldfish. When asked why he keeps such an odd pet, he explains, "He listens to me."
Trained as a barber in prison, he sets up a shop not far from the priest's temple and continues his solitary existence, keeping the eel in an aquarium and regarding it as his only companion. One day while fishing, he happens upon an unconscious young woman who resembles his late wife. Keiki (Misa Shimizu) has attempted suicide by swallowing pills. With the help of some neighbors, he rushes her to the hospital. After she recovers and is released, she persuades him to hire her as his assistant. No matter how affectionate she becomes, he keeps her at arm's length. After killing the only woman he has ever loved, he is unwilling to show love to anybody else. Like his pet eel, he is determined to live at the dark and muddy bottom of existence.
While the film focuses on their relationship, there are numerous secondary characters who are as every bit as picaresque as the slum-dwellers in "Eijanika". One believes in UFO's and has set up a "welcoming station" in his backyard composed of lights that blink like Christmas decorations. Another is his fishing partner who is filled with wisdom about the habits of eels. Keiki's mentally ill mother is a sexually ravenous amateur flamenco dancer. One of the merits of "The Eel", besides its affectionately droll humor, is that you will learn as much about eels as you would from a wildlife documentary on educational television.
And what should one think about the eel? Is it a symbol of something specific in Japanese culture? At a certain level, I suppose it is a symbol of constancy. Each year they go to nesting grounds near the equator and return thousands of miles to Japan to bear their young. The stoicism of the main character is evoked by this ritual, but he also transcends it in the final moments of the film as he opens up to Keiki. On a more basic level, it makes for great cinema as we see dream sequences in the film that combine humans and eels in a magical fashion.