The Eel (うなぎ, Shohei Imamura, 1997)

The EelDirector Shohei Imamura once stated that he liked “messy” films. Interested in the lower half of the body and in the lower half of society, Imamura continued to point his camera into the awkward creases of human nature well into his 70s when his 16th feature, The Eel (うなぎ, Unagi), earned him his second Palme d’Or. Based on a novel by Akira Yoshimura, The Eel is about as messy as they come.

Mild-mannered salary man Yamashita (Kouji Yakusho) receives a handwritten letter filled with beautiful calligraphy delivering the ugly message that his wife has been entertaining another man whilst he enjoys his weekly all night fishing trips. Confused at first, the note begins to work its way into Yamashita’s psyche and so he decides to leave his next fishing trip a little earlier than usual. Peeping through the keyhole, he finds his beloved wife enjoying energetic, passion filled sex with another man. Drawing a knife from a nearby shelf, he enters the room and attacks the pair killing the woman but letting the lover get away.

Yamashita immediately and with perfect calmness turns himself in at the local police station, still covered in his wife’s blood and carrying the murder weapon. Released on a two year probationary period after eight years in jail, there is no one to meet Yamashita when he comes out and so he remains under the guardianship of a Buddhist priest in a nearby town. Accompanied by his only friend, a pet eel, Yamashita takes possession of a local disused barbershop and sets about trying to rebuild his life.

Things change when Yamashita comes across an unconscious woman lying in the grass while he’s out looking for things to feed his eel. The strange thing is, this woman looks exactly like his wife. Eventually, Keiko (Misa Shimizu) recovers and comes to work with Yamashita in his new enterprise but as the pair grow closer the spectres of both of their troubled pasts begin to intrude.

As the small town residents of Yamashita’s new home often remark, Yamashita is a strange man. His deepest relationship is with his eel which the prison guards, who seem quite well disposed towards him, allowed him to keep in the prison pond even though pets are not generally allowed. When asked why he likes his eel so much, Yamshita replies that the eel listens to him and doesn’t tell him the things he does not wish to hear. Like Yamashita, the eel is isolated inside his tank, content to absent himself from interacting with other creatures, both protected and constrained by transparent walls.

After his release from prison, Yamashita begins to reflect on his crime which he doesn’t so much regret but has no desire to repeat. His other double arrives in the form of fellow inmate and double murderer Tamasaki (Akira Emoto) who keeps trying to convince Yamashita that he is living dishonestly by not having visited his wife’s grave or read sutras for her. Though Yamashita pays no heed to most of his advice which is more self-pity and anger than any real concern for Yamashita’s soul, some things begin to get to him, most notably that perhaps the fateful letter never existed at all and is nothing more than the manifestation of Yamashita’s jealous rage.

Though the film presents everything that happens to Yamashita as “real”, his state of mind is continually uncertain. Not only is the provenance of the letter doubted, he doubts the existence of Keiko because she looks (to him at least) like the returned ghost of the woman he killed, and even the final confrontational arguments with Tamasaki take on an unreal quality, as if Yamashita were arguing with himself rather than another man who also represents his own worst qualities – impulsivity, violence, self doubt and insecurity. The film is so deeply embedded in Yamashita’s subjective viewpoint that almost nothing can be taken at face value.

Yamashita is, in a sense, trapped in a hall of mirrors as his own faults are reflected back at him through the people that he meets. Keiko, rather than being physically murdered by a jealous lover, attempted to take her own life after being misused by a faithless (married) man. Her past troubles are, in some ways, the inverse of Yamashita’s as she finds herself at the mercy of dark forces but internalises rather than externalises her own anger. Cheerful and outgoing, she quickly turns Yamshita’s barbershop into a warm and welcoming place which the local community takes to its heart.

Yamashita, however, remains as closed off as ever though he does strike up something of a relationship with a lonely young man who wants to use his barber’s pole to try and call aliens. When Yamashita asks him what he’s going to do if the aliens actually come, the young man replies that he wants to make friends with them. Yamashita astutely remarks that the young man’s desire to meet aliens is down to a failure to connect with people from his own planet – an idea which the young man equally fairly throws back at him. Perhaps out of fear rather than atonement, Yamashita exiles himself from the world at large though gradually through continued exposure to the genial townsfolk and Keiko’s deep seated faith in him, he does begin to swim towards the surface.

Imamura adopts his usual, slightly ironic tone to lighten this otherwise heavy tale allowing the occasional comic set piece to shine through. Yakusho delivers another characteristically nuanced performance as this entirely unformed man, unsure of reality and trapped in a spiral of self doubt and confusion. His original crime of passion is at once chilling in its calmness but also messy and violent as he gives in to animalistic rage. After showing us a street lamp glowing an ominous red, Imamura steeps us in blood as his camera becomes progressively more stained making it impossible to forget the shocking betrayal of this unexpected violence.

Yamashita remarks at one point that he died that day alongside his wife. The Eel is a story of rebirth as its protagonists begin to swim towards the shore in support of each other, though like the titular marine creature there is no guarantee that they will make there alive. Yamashita is a cold blooded murderer and creature of suppressed rage yet Imamura is not interested in moral judgements as much as he is in the messier sides of human nature. A chance offering of redemption for the unredeemable, The Eel offers hope for the hopeless in a world filled with goodhearted eccentrics where all faults are forgivable once they are understood.


Original trailer (no subtitles)

My Little Sweet Pea (麦子さんと, Keisuke Yoshida, 2013)

My Little Sweet PeaHow many times were you told as a child, someday you will understand this? There are so many things you don’t see until it’s too late, and children being as they are, are almost programmed to see things from a self directed tunnel vision. Such is the case for Mugiko – a young woman with dreams of becoming an anime voice actress who is suddenly reunited with her estranged mother of whom she has almost no memory.

Mugiko (Maki Horikita) has a part time job in a manga store and is saving money to go to voice actress school. Raised by her father who has since passed on, she lives in a small flat with her older brother Norio (Ryuhei Matsuda) who also has a low wage job in a pachinko parlour. The pair’s lives change entirely when their long absent mother, Saiko (Kimiko Yo), arrives on their doorstep one day and begs to live in with them. Norio is dead against it but eventually Mugiko is persuaded and Saiko moves in. However, right after, Norio moves out to live with his girlfriend leaving Mugiko alone with the virtual stranger who is also her mother. Mugiko has a difficult time adjusting to living with a maternal figure and harsh words follow frequent misunderstandings until Saiko suddenly dies. Mugiko then travels back to Saiko’s hometown to inter her ashes and begins to forge a connection with the mother she barely knew.

The “haha mono” or “mother movie” is a subset of Japanese melodrama which focuses on the pain and heartbreak inherent in being a mother. Making countless sacrifices, the often saintly mothers do everything they can to ensure the best for their children even if their efforts cause nothing but suffering for themselves. My Little Sweet Pea (麦子さんと, Mugiko-san to) turns the genre on its side to look at things from the point of view of one of the “ungrateful” children, Mugiko, who is filled with resentment over having been “abandoned” only to have her mother suddenly return as if expecting to forget all the years of absence with one home cooked meal.

On journeying back to her mother’s remote rural town, Mugiko begins realise they weren’t so different from each other after all. Everyone in the village is stunned by Mugiko’s appearance which turns out to be the spitting image of her mother at around the same age. Saiko had also been something of a local celebrity thanks to her beauty, charm and popular presence. She left the town for the city with dreams of becoming a famous singer just like Seiko Matsuda and her rendition of the singer’s famous song Akai Sweet Pea is fondly remembered by the older generation.

Saiko’s dreams of hitting it big in the music business were never fulfilled though we know almost nothing about what happened to her between the end of her marriage and reappearance in her children’s lives save that she obviously had enough financial security to be able to send them money every month. Through meeting her mother’s old friends (and more than a few admirers), Mugiko comes to see something of herself in the distant figure of her mother as a young woman. Even if she couldn’t be there for reasons which are never fully explained, it wasn’t because she didn’t want to be or because she’d forgotten about or rejected her children, she suffered everyday thinking of and missing them and was tragically unable to rebuild that connection even at the very end.

Mugiko has been a little unsettled in her life, floating from one dream to the next and who really knows if voice acting is really the thing that she was meant to do. Saiko may have been more certain in her objective but whatever happened later it seems she found fulfilment in being a mother even if her dream of becoming a singer didn’t work out. Having been able to meet her mother even if vicariously, Mugiko is able to understand something about herself and perhaps repair a relationship that never quite took place. Striding out boldly with her mother in spirit beside her, Mugiko is finally able to step into the adult world and everything that is waiting out there for her with a new found confidence that comes with embracing the beauty of a distant scar.


Trailer (with English subtitles)

and here is the hit song from Seiko Matsuda – Akai Sweet Pea (1982)

Crying Out Love, in the Center of the World (世界の中心で、愛をさけぶ, Isao Yukisada, 2004)

sekachuJust look at at that title for a second, would you? Crying Out Love, in the Center of the World, you’d be hard pressed to find a more poetically titled film even given Japan’s fairly abstract titling system. All the pain and rage and sorrow of youth seem to be penned up inside it waiting to burst forth. As you might expect, the film is part of the “Jun ai” or pure love genre and focusses on the doomed love story between an ordinary teenage boy and a dying girl. Their tragic romance may actually only occupy a few weeks, from early summer to late autumn, but its intensity casts a shadow across the rest of the boy’s life.

The story begins 17 years later, in 2004 when Sakutaro is a successful man living in the city and engaged to be married. Whilst preparing to move, his fiancée, Ritsuko, who happens to be from the same hometown, finds an old jacket of hers in a box which still has a long forgotten cassette tape hidden in the pocket. Dated 28th October 1986, the tape takes Ritsuko back to her childhood and a long forgotten, unfulfilled promise. She leaves a note for Sakutaro and heads home for a bit to think about her past while he, unknowingly, chases after her back to the place where he grew up and the memories of his lost love which he’s been unable to put to rest all these years…

In someways, Crying Out Love is your typical weepy as a young boy and girl find love only to have it cruelly snatched away from them by fate. Suddenly everything becomes so much more intense, time is running out and things which may have taken months or even years to work out have to happen in a matter of hours. In real terms, it’s just a summer when you’re 17 but then when you’re 17 everything is so much more intense anyway even when you don’t have to invite Death to the party too. Aki may have a point when suggesting that the the love the local photographer still carries for their recently deceased headmistress who married another man only lasted so long because it was unfulfilled. Perhaps Aki and Sakutaro’s love story would have been over by the end of high school in any case, but Sakutaro was never given the chance to find out and that unfinished business has continued to hover over him ever since, buzzing away in the back of his mind.

“Unfinished business” is really what the film’s about. Even so far as “pure love” goes, there comes a time where you need to move on. Perhaps the photographer might have been happier letting go of his youthful love and making a life with someone else, although, perhaps that isn’t exactly fair on the “someone else” involved. The photographer’s advice, as one who’s lived in the world a while and knows loneliness only too well, is that the only thing those who’ve been left behind can do is to tie up loose ends. Sakutaro needs to come to terms with Aki’s death so he can finally get on with the rest of his life.

There is a fair amount of melodrama which is only to be expected but largely Crying out Love skilfully avoids the maudlin and manages to stay on the right side of sickly. The performances are excellent across the board with a masterfully subtle performance from Takao Osawa as the older Sakutaro equally matched by the boyishness of a young Mirai Moriyama as his teenage counterpart. The standout performance however comes from Masami Nagasawa who plays the seemingly perfect Aki admired by all for her well rounded qualities from her sporting ability to her beauty and intelligence but also has a mischievous, playful side which brings her into contact with Sakutaro. Her decline in illness is beautifully played as she tries to put a brave face on her situation, determined not to give in and clinging to her romance with Sakutaro even though she knows that she will likely not survive. Kou Shibasaki completes the quartet of major players in a slightly smaller though hugely important role of Sakutaro’s modern day fiancée saddled with a difficult late stage monologue which she carries off with a great deal of skill.

Impressively filmed by Isao Yukisada who neatly builds the films dualities through a series of recurrent motifs, Crying Out Love, in the Center of the World is not without its melodramatic touches but largely succeeds in being a painfully moving “pure love” story. Beautiful, tragic, and just as poetic as its title, Crying Out Love, in the Center of the World is a cathartic romance that like Sakutaro’s memories of Aki is sure to linger in the memory for years to come.


The Japanese R2 DVD release of Crying Out Love, In the Center of the World includes English subtitles (Hurray!).

(Unsubbed trailer though, sorry)